May 18, 2011

Defense Will Take You Deep in NCAAs

by Gary Lambrecht | LaxMagazine.com


If John Lade takes Ryan Young out of the equation, it could spell a long day Sunday for the Maryland offense.

© Kevin P. Tucker

Sure, there is a decent chance that, during this weekend's quarterfinal round of the NCAA men's lacrosse tournament, the highlight-reel playmakers will reign. It's easy to envision creative, dynamic scorers such as Cornell's Rob Pannell, Virginia's Steele Stanwick, Duke's Jordan Wolf, Denver's Mark Matthews or Syracuse's Tommy Palasek playing a primary role in the proceedings.

But I've got a feeling that, more than anything, surviving this weekend will boil down to which teams dig in and play the most sustained, high levels of defense.

Ever since Bill Tierney turned around Princeton in the 1990s by building what became a succession of great defenses in front of exceptional goalies – and by slowing the game to a deliberate pace that still irritates the sport's observers – defense has set the tone increasingly for the sport's powers.

The tendency accelerated during the past decade, especially since Johns Hopkins went undefeated in 2005 with a team that thrived on low-scoring, one-goal victories behind a wall that included defensemen Chris Watson and Tom Garvey, defensive midfielder Benson Erwin and goalie Jesse Schwartzman.

And you might say the trend fully flourished in 2011. Take a look at the tournament's remaining gang of eight.

Fourth-seeded Notre Dame, which nearly rode its defense to a national championship last year, ranks first in Division I in scoring defense. Hopkins, the No. 3 seed, is ranked third in that category, having played its best spring of defense since that 16-0 squad won it all.

Unseeded Maryland is fifth in scoring defense. Second-seeded Cornell, which boasts the third-highest scoring offense in the land, ominously ranks ninth in the nation in scoring defense.

And then, there is top-seeded Syracuse, which has revamped its identity behind first-team All-Americans such as close defenseman John Lade, long-stick midfielder Joel White and goalie John Galloway. The Orange, with back-to-back, early-season, 5-4 victories over Hopkins and Villanova on its resume, ranks fourth in the country in scoring defense.

In other words, No. 5 seed Duke, No. 6 Denver and No. 7 Virginia could be in big trouble this weekend.

Virginia – messy, banged-up and inconsistent on defense all spring – ranks 38th in scoring defense, and has allowed double-digit scoring with alarming regularity, including Sunday's come-from-behind, 13-12 overtime thriller over Bucknell. Same with Duke, which is ranked 33rd (9.33 goals allowed per game) and barely survived a fourth-quarter blitz by Delaware in a first-round, 15-14 victory.

At Denver, the Bill Tierney-coached Pioneers, who face Hopkins on Saturday, have ridden a high-octane offense that has covered up a fairly pedestrian defense (18th in scoring at 8.3 goals allowed per game). The Denver defense allowed eight, first-half goals to Villanova on Sunday before rallying for a 13-10 victory.

The run-and-gun, back-and-forth, high-scoring contest has not died. But it has been displaced by teams putting a premium on

The run-and-gun, back-and-forth, high-scoring contest has not died. But it has been displaced by teams putting a premium on stopping the other guy.

stopping the other guy. The game is more about defensive schemes that shut off top scoring threats, cut off the transition game, maintain a slower tempo and induce long, scoring droughts. It's more about defensive positioning, packing it in with matchup zone alignments, not gambling as much in search of turnovers, taking away the crease area for shooters.

It's about the Big D. Think of the way Cornell choked off upset-minded Hartford in the first round, after falling behind early by a 3-1 count. Or the way Hofstra couldn't buy a goal after jumping on Hopkins last week with the game's first two scores. Or the way Notre Dame and Syracuse never let the offenses of Penn or Siena get into any rhythm in lopsided, first-round victories.

Don't be surprised if this weekend re-introduces some major impact players carrying six-foot poles.

If Syracuse senior stopper John Lade puts the clamps on Maryland senior attackman/igniter Ryan Young and Joel White neutralizes Terps midfielder Joe Cummings, the Terps offense probably will die a slow death no matter how many faceoffs Curtis Holmes wins. If Notre Dame knocks off Duke, it probably will be due to the Kevin Ridgway-led close defense cutting off attackmen Zach Howell and Jordan Wolf and forcing the Blue Devils to settle for lots of 12-yard shots.

Should Hopkins get by Denver, it will be due in part to the Blue Jays' excellent shooters, but more so to that stifling, slide-and-recover, man-to-man Hopkins unit doing a number on the Pioneers' prolific attack trio of Mark Matthews, Alex Demopoulos and Todd Baxter or Eric Law (if Baxter can't go due to ankle and knee injuries that kept him out of Denver's first-round game).

In the Cornell-Virginia game, you know Pannell and that Big Red offense are going to get their points. But expect Cornell to seal the deal with a defense that will not allow Stanwick and finisher extraordinaire Chris Bocklet to save the Cavaliers, as a tired Bucknell team did.

Back when Division I lacrosse was a more freewheeling, up-and-down affair with fewer substitutions and less emphasis on defense, the "hot goalie" was such an equalizer come tournament time. That still applies this weekend, with outstanding goalkeepers such as Galloway, Hopkins sophomore Pierce Bassett, Notre Dame sophomore John Kemp, Maryland redshirt freshman Niko Amato and Denver freshman Jamie Faus working between the pipes.

But the teams that move on to Baltimore in next week's championship weekend figure to do so because their six-man defensive units imposed their will and discipline the most effectively in the quarterfinals.

Any champion needs some playmakers that can dodge, pass and shoot and just know how to score. But this year's champion likely will get there by leaning heavily on its defense.


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