March 26, 2014

Super ACC Season All It's Cracked Up To Be

by Gary Lambrecht | | Twitter | Lambrecht Archive

Notre Dame is off to a 2-0 start in its first season in the ACC. All of the conference's six teams are ranked inside the top 10, even Syracuse, which is 0-3 in league play thus far. (Peyton Williams)

When the 2014 season began, the pollsters strongly predicted the new-look Atlantic Coast Conference would be stacked high with talent, athleticism and playoff teams that, besides earning an automatic qualifier would grab the majority of the NCAA tournament's eight at-large bids come tournament time.

That still appears to be the case among the six-team ACC, which will lose Maryland next year when the Terrapins join the Big Ten.

As March comes to a close, with most league members nicking each other as expected, all six schools (Duke, North Carolina, Notre Dame, Virginia, Syracuse and Maryland) are still ranked in the top 10. All conference schools are ranked among the nation's top 15 in scoring offense. Four are ranked in the top 13 in scoring defense. Collectively, the ACC has won 76 percent of its 49 games, and has a record of 29-4 (.879) against non-conference opponents.

Yet, there are some weird things going on. The league has absorbed some surprising blowouts both in and out of conference and has ensured some predictable inconsistency given the youth on some rosters. It also has produced some splendid little conference wars that remind us no one does lacrosse like the ACC.

Midway through the league's regular-season schedule, the story of the winter has been newcomer Syracuse, which has assumed the unlikely position of bottom feeder at 0-3 in the conference. Fresh off of Sunday's 21-7 pummeling at Duke, the No. 9 Orange (4-3 overall) appear to be in full-blown crisis mode.

A year after the Orange overcame serious faceoff issues by playing lockdown defense and running masterfully efficient offense well enough to reach the season's final game, Syracuse is a faceoff disaster again. It has won only 37 percent of its draws to rank 58th out of 67 Division I schools.

But this time, against the high-powered offenses of the ACC, the Orange can't make nearly enough stops. Syracuse ranks 65th in scoring defense (13.57 goals per game). In three losses to Maryland, Virginia and Duke, the Orange has surrendered an astounding 18 goals per defeat while being outscored, 54-27.

And look who's coming to the Carrier Dome on Saturday — none other than No. 7 Notre Dame (5-2, 2-0 ACC). The Irish entered the week leading the nation in faceoff percentage (.685) behind Liam O'Connor and used that weapon to pound Virginia recently by an 18-9 count.

It will be interesting to see if Notre Dame, which also got an early-season, 11-10 win against North Carolina, can get a big offensive game from someone not named Matt Kavanagh. He has carried the unit spectacularly with 20 goals and 12 assists.

The other four old ACC hands have had their moments, good and bad, some awful. There is aforementioned No. 8 Virginia (7-2, 1-1), which came unglued against the Irish at the faceoff X and on defense, but stared down a solid Johns Hopkins team impressively in an overtime victory last week.

"All of us are still settling into our personnel. Everybody presents problems [in the ACC]. Opportunities are there, and then they're gone so quickly," Maryland coach John Tillman said. "A lot of it boils down to, are you getting saves and are you winning faceoffs?"

"To me, the league is what I thought it was going to be," said North Carolina coach Joe Breschi, who avoided the Syracuse elephant in the discussion. "Everybody has talented players. Everybody has great athletes. But some match up better than others. Making fewer mistakes than your opponent is the key."

Duke, North Carolina and Maryland have been studies in that point.

The third-ranked Blue Devils (8-2, 2-1) have been good enough to drill Syracuse and edge North Carolina in an overtime thriller last week, bad enough to get outscored at No. 5 Maryland and No. 2 Loyola in early March by a combined score of 24-13. The best sign of late at Duke is its young midfield might be emerging, if sophomore Deemer Class' six-goal outburst against Syracuse is an indication.

The most consistent ACC squads have been Maryland (7-1, 2-1) and Carolina (7-2, 1-2).

Maryland, with Charlie Raffa facing off and Niko Amato anchoring an excellent defense, is developing its young attack nicely around midfielder Mike Chanenchuk. But the Terps were probably due to show their youth, which they did with a turnover-laden, 11-8 loss in Chapel Hill last week, after whipping Syracuse and Duke early in their schedule.

The fourth-ranked Tar Heels were searching for the right combinations on offense early on. Breschi has been touting an improved defense since day one, especially a rope unit led by short-stick Ryan Creighton, and sophomore goalie Kieran Burke, who ranks seventh in the country in save percentage (.581).

Carolina, which has settled on Pat Foster to complement the most dynamic 1-2 attack punch in the league in Joey Sankey and Jimmy Bitter — the trio combined for five goals and four assists against Maryland — continues to improve in both areas. After suffering one-goal losses to Notre Dame and Duke while making key, fourth-quarter mistakes, the Tar Heels led Maryland for the final 33:40. Carolina forced a number of Maryland's 16 turnovers while killing all five of its penalties, and held the Terps to 8-for-30 shooting on a day when Raffa (16-for-23) was dynamite.

The ACC will spend part of April throwing punches at each other in regular-season showdowns. One has to figure everybody will keep getting better (even Syracuse, right?). By the time the league tournament rolls into PPL Park in Chester, Pa. on the last weekend in April, any of the top four seeds could be ready to win it.

Even the contest pitting the No. 5 vs. No. 6 seeds, a game coaches refer to as "the Toilet Bowl," could produce high drama, since the loser might be on the outside looking in as at-large bids are awarded on May 4.

It all amounts to madness that translates, as usual, into must-see lacrosse.

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