June 3, 2013

Way Too Early Rankings for 2014: MD1 Nos. 1-5

by Patrick Stevens | LaxMagazine.com

Matt Kavanagh's strong freshman season suggest the Irish have an attackman to build their offense around long-term.
© TD Paulius

It's never too early, right? Patrick Stevens continues his look ahead to the 2014 season with Nos. 6-10 in a Way Too Early Division I men's Top 20. For 16-20, click here, 11-15 here and 10-6 here.

No. 5 Notre Dame (11-5 in 2013)

Last seen: Mixing up its method of postseason exits, falling 12-11 to Duke in an immensely entertaining quarterfinal in Indianapolis to cap a 1-3 skid to end the year

Senior starts lost: 64 of 160 (40 percent)

Scoring departing: 80 of 247 points (32.4 percent)

The skinny: Year in and year out, you know exactly what you’re going to get from Notre Dame — an exceptional defensive system that amplifies the skills of a quality goalie coupled with a bunch of decent offensive players who are not a sure thing to collectively produce late in the season.

It will be the same next season, when the Fighting Irish head to the ACC along with Syracuse. It won’t be much of a change for Notre Dame, which played Duke and North Carolina in the regular season in 2013 and will have to add Virginia while shoehorning a game against Maryland into the schedule for a year. Frankly, the results shouldn’t change a whole lot, either.

But can Notre Dame, a quarterfinalist in five of the last six seasons, claim its first national title? Matt Kavanagh’s strong freshman season (32 goals and 16 assists) suggests the Irish have an attackman to build their offense around long-term. Even with the exits of goalie John Kemp and defenseman Matt Miller, the defense will keep the Irish in most games. If they want to go further, though, they’ll need a more explosive offense with more potent scoring options, especially in the midfield.

No. 4 Denver (14-5)

Last seen: Trailing for only 20 seconds --- but was it ever the wrong 20 seconds --- in a semifinal loss to Syracuse to cap another season of growth under Bill Tierney

Senior starts lost: 78 of 190 (41.1 percent)

Scoring departing: 177 of 368 points (48.1 percent)

The skinny: Tierney, in his inimitable manner, basically dared the assembled media to severely underrate the Pioneers heading into 2014 after their loss to Syracuse. Pass. It doesn’t matter if the Hall of Famer’s more than a decade removed from his last championship; only a fool underestimates his ability to maximize the talent on his roster.

Now, that roster is going to look a bit different, with some stalwarts from both of Denver’s final four teams moving. The Pioneers graduate Eric Law at attack and Chase Carraro and Cameron Flint in the midfield, so their offensive identity will change. But a healthy Jeremy Noble combined with the return of Wesley Berg and Eric Adamson provide a decent place for the offense to start, and two defensemen and both goalies return as well.

The move to the Big East was a stellar long-term decision for Denver, providing access to an automatic berth (something the crumbling ECAC can’t guarantee if the Big Ten forms a league and plucks Michigan and Ohio State away) and some television exposure for the foreseeable future. It also has the benefit of being a league the Pioneers should thrive in immediately. There might be some initial struggles, but Tierney will have a team that is a nasty out in May when all is said and done.

No. 3 Syracuse (16-4)

Last seen: Unable to win faceoffs in a 16-10 title game loss to Duke, a setback that shouldn’t take away from the Orange’s first Memorial Day appearance since 2009.

Senior starts lost: 81 of 200 (40.5 percent)

Scoring departing: 132 of 376 points (35.1 percent)

The skinny: It was a weird season for the Orange, but it probably wouldn’t have seemed that way if it was almost any other program. Syracuse was a middling faceoff team, but it played smart (just 11.75 turnovers per game), achieved great offensive balance (seven players with 18 goals and none with more than 34) and received a stellar bounceback season as JoJo Marasco refashioned himself as a top-notch feeder (42 assists).

In short, Syracuse did what it had to do, captured more than its share of its one-goal games (a 7-3 mark in those contests) and set itself up for potentially an even better season as it heads into the ACC. Losing Marasco will hurt, but the Orange still have eight of their top 10 point-getters back. The offense might not have had a star in the classic Syracuse tradition, but it was still plenty efficient.

The top issue for the Orange will be solving the faceoff quagmire. Clearly, it wasn’t an impossible impediment for Syracuse to overcome most of the time, but the inability to regain possession essentially doomed the Orange in the national title game. Syracuse has won less than half of its faceoffs three years in a row, and eventually that catches up to a team. By now, Syracuse should realize that.

No. 2 North Carolina (13-4)

Talents, such as Chad Tutton, remain at North Carolina. Can the Tar Heels finally break the drought and make the final four?

Last seen: Coming so close to ending a two-decade absence from Memorial Day weekend, only to fritter away a six-goal lead to Denver in the NCAA tournament quarterfinals

Senior starts lost: 54 of 170 (31.8 percent)

Scoring departing: 113 of 355 points (31.8 percent)

The skinny: Here’s guessing a lot more folks would be on the Tar Heels’ bandwagon for 2014 if they could have just closed out Denver in the quarterfinals after building a large early lead. But the Pioneers rallied, North Carolina misfired repeatedly in six-on-six situations and the end result was the Tar Heels bumping their collective noggins on the program’s quarterfinal ceiling yet again.

That’s seven straight losses in that round for North Carolina, and the departure of the stellar Marcus Holman (37 goals and 43 assists as a senior) ensures an offense that finally seemed to find the correct equilibrium in coach Joe Breschi’s fifth season will need some tinkering. But there’s a lot back, and the likes of Joey Sankey, Jimmy Bitter and Chad Tutton will keep the Tar Heels dangerous.

The next step for North Carolina will probably come at the other end of the field. Kieran Burke provided stability in goal as a freshman, and the Tar Heels became a bit more consistent on defense (opponents shot 27 percent, their lowest against North Carolina since 2008).

In a well-worn refrain from much of the last decade, there’s just too much talent assembled in Chapel Hill to think the Tar Heels aren’t on the verge of busting through to the semifinals. After this year’s strides, it seems like the final four drought is getting closer to ending than it ever has.

No. 1 Duke (16-5)

Last seen: Celebrating the program’s second championship in four years thanks in large part to a deep offense and ferociously effective faceoff man Brendan Fowler

Senior starts lost: 70 of 210 (33.3 percent)

Scoring departing: 164 of 464 points (35.3 percent)

The skinny: No one reloads and retools better than Duke; the Blue Devils’ seven straight semifinal appearances (and eight in the last nine years) are evidence of that. And in many areas, Duke won’t look much different.

All three starting attackmen (including Jordan Wolf, who scored 57 goals this season) will be back. So, too, will two starters on close defense, the Blue Devils’ top two poles, jet-quick defensive midfielder Will Haus and goalie Kyle Turri.

The greatest uncertainty exists in the midfield, though that comes with an asterisk. Duke was rewarded for heavily playing two lines, and the three returnees from that group of six (rising senior Christian Walsh and soon-to-be-sophomores Deemer Class and Myles Jones) combined for 44 goals and 30 assists. That’s a promising foundation, though it might take time to establish depth.

Fowler could again be Duke’s most valuable asset. The most outstanding player of the NCAA tournament was indefatigable this year, setting Division I records for most faceoffs won (339) and taken (526) in a season.

Bank on Duke losing a couple games early, because it always does. Then feel certain the Blue Devils will figure things out by mid-March and uncork a long hot streak. Maybe Duke doesn’t win back-to-back championships, but it’s as good a bet as anyone to make it to Baltimore next Memorial Day weekend.

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