March 7, 2013

UnCensered: Why is Maryland So Good? Terps Running with New Rules

by Joel Censer | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter | Censer Archive


Maryland looks comfortable playing in half-field sets even with the threat of a 30-second timer after a stall warning. The Terps haven't lost their between-the-lines toughness either.
© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com

During the final minutes of Maryland's 16-7 thrashing of Duke last Saturday, ESPNU color commentator Ryan Flanagan, a former North Carolina defenseman well-versed in ACC ball, discussed how the current Maryland roster didn't have much in the way of weaknesses.

It was an interesting development. Over the past few years, when it came time to talk Terps, the narrative was usually how incomplete they were. When pundits spoke about the "Mosh Pit," or described Maryland with adjectives like "grinding" or "blue-collar" it was shorthand to say the Terrapins won less because of top-tier talent and more because they were willing to fight you over every inch of turf.

Whereas most contenders overwhelm other teams with offensive firepower, the Terps flipped the script: dominating the possession war while playing a methodical brand of lacrosse where two-, three-, and four-minute possessions were the norm. The street-fight strategy was built on a simple, yet effective premise: get more possessions than your opponent and be more efficient with them (even if that took minutes at a time, angered an entire sport's fan base, and caused the Rules Committee to change the game, but whatever).

With the new rules, many wondered how the 2013 Terps would respond to not being able to control pace of play at every instance. In preseason, one coach riffed:

"[Coach John Tillman] deserves a lot of credit. It'll be interesting to see if the new rules force his hand a little bit. He's done a really good job — I don't think they've had overwhelming talent the past couple years or they're a team that overpowers you at the offensive end of the field. But they're smart, deliberate, and do what they want to do. Probably as interesting a team to watch with the new rules."

On Saturday in Durham, though, the Terrapins looked comfortable initiating six-on-six even with the threat of "Timer On." Their midfielders ran by guys. The attack finished. There were all the signs of an explosive half-field offense: hard dodges, perfectly thrown skip passes, crease finishes and a steady diet of two-man games. Against a vaunted Duke defense with a bunch of rangy veterans, who are clearly missing former defensive coordinator Chris Gabrielli, it was impressive.

Maryland was also still Maryland. Jesse Bernhardt, Landon Carr and company pushed transition and displayed white-hot intensity between the stripes. Charlie Raffa won faceoffs. The defense was stingy and physical, and cleared at a 100 percent clip (the Terps have been around 90 percent the last three years).

As media outlets circle around College Park like buzzards, the question is not whether Maryland can adjust to the new rules but instead whether they are the best, most complete team in the country. Although grainy videos of Rob Pannell's return and Notre Dame's Twitter account could probably convince me otherwise, I'm on the Terp bandwagon. But I still have questions. Here are a few Terrapin-related thoughts:

The Terps are, in fact, playing faster

Whether you believed Maryland's "keep it in" offense was a glorified stall or as John Tillman described, just a team being "choosy with our choices," the Terps are playing faster this season. According to CollegeCrosse.com's Tempo Free Lax site, the Terps were ranked 60th in 2012 and 58th in 2011 in "pace," a stat that looks at a number of factors (how many possessions teams have during a game for instance) to determine the speed at which they are playing. This year? The Terrapins are ranked 27th. Maryland will never be confused with 1980s era UNLV or some Kentucky outfit running Rick Pitino's full court press, but that is a significant difference.

Another difference? While last season (again, according to Tempo Free Lax), Maryland had the third most efficient offense in the country, in 2013, despite scoring more goals and looking more explosive and aesthetically pleasing, they are only ranked 11th. Of course, there are plenty of explanations for this: the Terrapins have only played four games, including two against defenses that project to be among the nation's best. Because Maryland is playing faster, they've had more possessions tasked to backups. Three of their four games were also blowouts. It's difficult to gauge efficiency in games where you're leading by 10-plus goals and mixing in non-starters.

Regardless, it still shows no matter how well the Maryland offense plays it will be difficult to replicate the nihilistic efficiency of their former offensive strategy. Think about last postseason: Maryland scored double-digit goals against both Johns Hopkins and Duke despite spending large chunks of the game chewing clock behind the goal. Because they were able to probe for the perfect shot, they were always going to be relatively proficient.

Chanenchuk has improved

On a personnel level, it's become increasingly clear over the last few weeks that midfielder Mike Chanenchuk was hobbled by injury(ies) last season. At times last year, I wondered whether he was the same guy who as a freshman at Princeton set the Ivy League aflame with a slick, quick-trigger release and a nice first step. Two years removed from his last college lacrosse game in 2012 (he sat out a year before transferring to Maryland), he had some trouble breaking down short-sticks and, despite slinging the ball more than any of his teammates, shot only 18 percent. The last few weeks, however, the reinvigorated junior has shown that if you don't slide or put a long-stick on him, he's going to find twine. That one left-handed goal where he split right to left — and the in process made Duke's star long-sitck Luke Duprey look like he was on ice skates — could have been spliced into a Mark Millon video.

Defenses will adjust, bump up poles

"Defenses are going to start moving two and three long poles up to cover Maryland's midfield. It already happened in both the Loyola and Duke games."

Defenses are going to start moving two and three long poles up to cover Maryland's midfield. It already happened in both the Loyola and Duke games. So far, the Terps have handled it pretty well. When Duke bumped Chris Hipps up, Maryland attackman/resident crease finisher Jay Carlson took advantage by curling, ditching his d-middie, getting his hands free and finishing on the doorstep.

But I do wonder if Chanenchuk, Jake Bernhardt and John Haus can operate off the dodge against a long-stick. Where do the Terps turn to if they aren't initiating from that first midfield? Can Owen Blye and Kevin Cooper consistently use the two-man game not to burn clock or manage the game but actually score goals? If a triple-pole does happen, could the Terps insert jitterbuggin', question-markin' Brendan Saylor or freshman phenom Bradlee Lord (both currently run second midfield) at attack to give the Terps more of a dodging presence down low?

Maryland's defense has been great too

Finally, if the Terrapins do struggle to score some goals here and there, how much will it matter? I'm serious. Tempo Free Lax shows that despite having to match up against Loyola's ground ball savant Scott Ratliff and Duke's stud faceoff man Brendan Fowler, Maryland is second in the nation in possession percentage. Moreover, the Terps are fourth in defensive efficiency.

I was shocked how ineffective Duke's offense looked against Maryland. But I guess I shouldn't have been too surprised. Jesse Bernhardt is for my money is the most talented defensive player since Brodie Merrill suited up at Georgetown. Raffa had a great summer at the faceoff dot for Team USA at the FIL U19 World Championships. The defensive core, including stud goalie Niko Amato, cover man Goran Murray and bruiser Michael Ehrhardt, among others, all returned. While I do think the Terrapins will have to put up a bunch of goals in a hurry or go goal-for-goal with teams at some point in the season, there is clearly significant room for error.


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