May 27, 2013

UnCensered: Three Reasons Why Duke Finished on Top

by Joel Censer | | Censer Archive | Twitter

Duke junior Jordan Wolf was the best attackman playing on final four weekend, writes Joel Censer, and may have entered his name into a group of all-time elite at his position.
© Kevin P. Tucker

* Duke Overwhelms Syracuse for Title Win
* Fowler, Duke's Steady Force, Dominates Faceoffs
* Rapid Reaction from Philly
* Photo Gallery

PHILADELPHIA — Man, Duke really did that whole possum routine in 2013. Like really did it. The Blue Devils started the season 2-4 while looking lost on defense, undisciplined between the stripes, and anemic on offense.

To everyone, including this blowhard columnist, Duke's slow start seemed different this season. Chris Gabrielli, the longtime brains behind the Duke defense, had bolted to become Providence head coach. There was no C.J. Costabile to harass ball carriers and tilt the possession war. There didn't seem to be much in the way of a primetime Robert Rotanz-styled midfielder to handle a pole and shoulder the scoring.

But as has been the case since John Danowski took at Duke over seven years ago, the Blue Devils rose from the ashes and began turning things around mid-season. By Memorial Day, Duke was celebrating on Lincoln Financial Field and putting on championship t-shirts. Here are some final thoughts on how the Blue Devils transformed themselves from rotting corpse to national champion.

Blue Devils are possession warriors

In 2013, a lot of a noise was made and bandwidth used to explain how faceoffs weren't all that important. In many ways, Syracuse was the poster child for this philosophy — that you could win games without winning clamps. The Orange cleared effectively, possessed the pill and caused turnovers to gain possession.

But Brendan Fowler's dominant performance at the X all weekend, including his 20-for-28 performance against the Orange, reminded everyone that there's no substitute for a guy playing make-it, take-it. It wasn't just that he was winning draws, he was also the catalyst for a Duke engine which would go on five-, six-, and seven-goal runs without blinking. Throw in short stick defensive midfielder Will Haus and rangy takeaway savant Luke Duprey, and the Blue Devils had elite between-the-lines muscle that made it difficult for any team to have the ball enough to keep up in a track meet.

Quick Note: I'll wade very quickly into the faceoff debate by just pointing out how difficult the position is to recruit and to coach. Even Fowler was an unrecruited walk-on at Duke. So whereas the best talent at other positions generally skews to certain teams, the best draw men are often toiling away at mid-majors. When people argue that faceoffs don't correlate much with winning, I do wonder whether maybe it's because the team which often has the better technician might not be as talented in a bunch other areas. Regardless, when a team like Duke is dominating at the dot, it matters. A lot.

Jordan Wolf best attackman of the weekend

Lost somewhere between all the text dedicated to Fowler or Rob Pannell was that Jordan Wolf may have dodged his way into the pantheon of great attackmen. He wasn't talked about all season as a Tewaaraton Award candidate or even mentioned much as an elite offensive guy. My guess is that this was because most coaches probably thought he had more burst than bite, and lacked some of the quarterbacking nuance of a Pannell or Lyle Thompson.

But he was the best attackman this weekend by far. He pumped in eight goals and three assists and was definitely no one-trick, all right-handed power-dodging pony. He was unselfish. He made the extra pass. He was the tablesetter for Duke's two-man games from behind. He rode. He threw a couple great spot feeds. Of course, he still had that first step, especially when he got the ball after an initial dodge and had space to operate. The Philly native/prodigal son blew by All-American defensemen like they weren't even there.

Senior midfielders rise to the occasion

I wrote it last year that veteran midfielders often play a huge role during championship weekend because when the game slows down and offense needs to be generated, it often comes down to the guys who draw short-sticks. Moreover, because dodging from the midfield requires a certain amount of athleticism, the responsibility usually falls to older guys who have been around the block before.

As for Duke, its senior middies came up huge time and time again and made the Blue Devils nearly unguardable in the half-field. Southpaw David Lawson battled poles all week and probably scored Duke's biggest goal. When Cornell was threatening in the fourth quarter on Saturday, the senior drove hard from X and scored with almost zero angle to give the Devils a three-goal cushion. Jake Tripucka forced the Big Red to bump up two poles to the midfield (opening the way for Case Matheis's big day), had four points against both Cornell and 'Cuse, and when the Blue Devils were on the ropes early in the first quarter against the Orange, scored a huge first quarter goal to break the ice. Josh Offit was a force on the extra man and the lead dog on a second line that inflicted its fair share of damage too. You can't overlook experience, and now the Duke seniors finish with one more — cutting down the nets on Memorial Day.

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