March 14, 2013

UnCensered: Bullish on Orange, but Jays Built for This Year

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

John Ranagan, an absolute full-field force, will be a load for Syracuse to handle. Ranagan clears. He plays the wing. He plays tough defense and picks up grounders.

Over the last decade, when Johns Hopkins has been up, Syracuse has generally been down. And vice versa.

In 2005, when a Kyle Harrison-led Hopkins team won its first title since 1987, Syracuse was in a post-Powell recession, missing its first championship weekend in 22 years. Two years later, when Paul Rabil and Stephen Peyser led the Jays to another championship, Syracuse was at home, having suffered through a disastrous 5-8 season with a sieve-like defense.

Of course, the Orange had their moment in the sun, too. Yes, the two teams sparred for the 2008 championship, a game which ‘Cuse won despite Rabil’s six super-human tallies. But as the Jays struggled to pick up the pieces in the post-Rabil era, Matt Abbott, Kenny Nims, Joel White, John Galloway, and the rest of the Orange won another title, on a last-second miracle. The Orange didn’t have much sympathy for the Homewood rebuilding project either, dispatching Johns Hopkins easily in 2009 and 2010.

People forget, but Hopkins’s current crop of seniors first showed backbone in the Carrier Dome in 2011, taking a veteran No.1-ranked Syracuse outfit to the brink. Johns Hopkins’ Kyle Wharton even appeared to score the apparent game-winner (in the shot heard ‘round PJ’s Pub), before the refs said it was his momentum — not the aluminum being shoved into his back — that propelled Wharton into the crease before calling off the goal. Orange attackman Stephen Keogh ended the Jays’ upset bid with the golden tally.

Last year, John Ranagan, Zach Palmer, Tucker Durkin, Pierce Bassett and the rest of the class that grew up that day in the Carrier Dome, took down an inexperienced, seemingly uninspired Syracuse team with startling efficiency.  

On Saturday (1 p.m. ESPNU), the two preeminent Division I men's programs will draw blood in Syracuse — but this time from similar positions. Both are national contenders that have shown the ability to compete at the highest levels and could be a factor come Memorial Day. Yet, both have some serious question marks too.

After watching Syracuse take down St. John’s 13-11 at the Independence Classic and because I find myself randomly taking in a lot of Johns Hopkins games on TV, I think I’m in as good position as any other talking head to try to play prophet. Without further ado: your Johns Hopkins-Syracuse preview.

When the Jays have the ball

So this is what we know about the Jays on offense: in unsettled situations or when they have numbers, Hopkins has its usual contingent of hyper-skilled stick handlers who can finish with time and room. Freshman midfielder Ryan Brown has run point on an extra-man unit that is converting at an insane 59 percent rate. With a bunch of athletes roaming the middle of the field (those Ranagan skip passes in transition are an attackman’s dream) and Mike Poppleton winning faceoffs at a 73 percent clip, Hopkins is likely to have its fair share of odd-man rushes.

Unfortunately for Hopkins, today’s lacrosse college games are primarily fought in half-field six-on-six sets. Despite being known as a slug-it-out-type team, the Jays are only ranked 21st in Tim Sullivan’s Tempo Free Lax adjusted offensive efficiency rankings. My feeling? When you play two Canadians who are most comfortable in catch-and-shoot roles, it puts lots of pressure on midfielders to initiate.

Johns Hopkins offensive coordinator Bobby Benson deserves a lot of credit for being creative with his personnel and running picks, misdirections, flips, fake flips and general forms of interference so that the midfield group isn’t just having to try to find net while moving full speed away from the goal (that’s really what an alley dodge is when you think about it). But with Rob Guida out with a broken collarbone, Rex Sanders now having a scouting profile (you like your left hand?) and John Greeley not being much of a threat to score (one goal, eight assists, 8 percent shooting percentage), it often feels like rumblin’ Ranagan or speedster Lee Coppersmith are the only sure things to generate offense. Not good.

Whether or not Ranagan sometimes misses the cage, the Westchester freight train should be properly appreciated before it leaves town.

As one coach described the Jays’ offense to Lacrosse Magazine this offseason:

“They have continued to run downhill from the midfield. When they haven’t been able to do that they haven’t had another option to turn to. I’ve always felt like you built your offensive group from the attack first. I was taught early in my career that you look for attackmen to start things, and just have big athletic middies to get them the ball. It’s very much the opposite for them. [Hopkins] tends to bog down with midfield shooting which is like three-point shooting in basketball. If you live by that sword you better be prepared to die by that sword.”

On that note, Wells Stanwick continues to be the Jays’ bellwether. The sophomore attackman has been on an absolute heater, scoring seven goals and dishing out eight dimes over his last two games. If he can continue to pick his spots taking defenseman off the dodge, use well-timed picks to draw short-sticks and run some two-man action with Palmer; it will be a huge boon to diversifying the Hopkins offense.

As for the Syracuse defense, they had their moments this year holding Army and Virginia to a combined ten goals. But they also struggled at times last Saturday against a St. John’s star-studded attack. Clearly, the Orange miss its most athletic cover man Brandon Mullins, who is lost for season with a torn ACL. But with or without him, ‘Cuse still has a stable full of rangy, mean and proud defensemen who are going be slow to slide and make attackers earn their goals. Megill, who lost his individual battle against Red Storm attackman Kieran McArdle, is still a likely first-team All-American. Bobby Wardwell has to improve on his 46 percent save percentage.

Advantage: Draw.

Why? I think there’s probably a little more talent on the Blue Jay offense than the Syracuse defense. But Megill, who has a couple inches and 40-plus pounds on Stanwick, can definitely cover the sophomore quarterback without much support. Syracuse defensive midfielder Steve Ianzito has the size and speed to do hand-to-hand combat with the bigger Blue Jay midfielders. None of the Orange poles, clearing at a 93 percent clip, will be intimidated by a ferocious Hopkins ride.

Finally, ‘Cuse is always well-coached and there’s a pretty clear blueprint to make life difficult for the Jays: Don’t give up unsettled goals (I can’t believe I’m telling Syracuse to slow it down against Hopkins, either). Don’t foul. Force Greeley to beat you with his shot and not his skip pass (has he ever shot on the run?). Maybe most important, try to honor matchups and navigate all the picks they’ll throw at you. Zach Palmer dodging against a short-stick (see: duck under move from the wing against UMBC) is not the same as him having to battle a defenseman on the corner.

Joel Censer doesn't see the Syracuse offense having many advantages, aside from JoJo Marasco dodging against a long pole.
© Kevin P. Tucker

When Syracuse has the ball

There’s been a dirty little secret in upstate New York the past couple years. After Nims and Hardy graduated, the Orange offense just hasn’t been all that explosive. Tempo Free Lax confirms the eye test: since 2010 Syracuse has never ranked higher than 15th in adjusted offensive efficiency.

I wrote about it some on Monday, but I like the Orange half-field offense more in 2013 (even if it’s ranked 23rd  through only four games). They just seem more aware of who they are, where their strengths lie and what everyone’s defined role is. That whatever they may lack in individual dodgers they try to make up for in screens, picks, quick touches and off-ball movement. They’re following through on what they promised when longtime assistant Kevin Donahue took over the reins in the offseason.

That said, the ‘Cuse offense will be playing a different beast when the Columbia Blues roll into the Dome. Hopkins returns basically everything in 2013 — including last season’s NCAA most outstanding defender Durkin and All-American goalie Bassett — from a backline that ranked fourth last season in adjusted defensive efficiency. But recently, Johns Hopkins’ defense has looked human. Durkin has been beaten top side through six games more than he was all of last year. There have been early brewings of a controversy in net. Most concerning, even with the return of defensive middie extraordinaire Phil Castronova, the Jays’ clearing percentage has been mediocre. This makes some sense considering their poles are more thick shouldered cyborgs than slick-sticked John Glatzel clones. While I understand defense is in many ways a meat-and-potatoes affair, clearing effectively is an integral part of winning the possession war.

Advantage: Hopkins

Why? I do like how Luke Cometti, Kevin Rice and friends are sharing the ball and generating offense for Syracuse. But when I peruse all the potential individual matchups, I can’t see ‘Cuse having an advantage except maybe when JoJo Marasco dodges the Hopkins long pole (watch his patented right-to-left rollback). If the Orange can’t penetrate against the snarling likes of Durkin, Jack Reilly and Chris Lightner, does off-ball movement even matter?

Between the stripes

Johns Hopkins Faceoff Stats:

Mike Poppleton: 82-for-112 (73 percent)
Drew Kennedy: 17-for-28 (61 percent)

Syracuse Faceoff Stats:

Chris Daddio: 33-for-59 (56 percent)
Brendan Conroy: 9-for-25 (36 percent)

Um, yeah.

Advantage: Hopkins

Why? A couple quick notes on Johns Hopkins currently being ranked second in possession percentage in Division I: First, it has to be a nice luxury for the Hopkins faithful to have a long-stick midfielder like Michael Pellegrino who has the between-the-lines moxie that the Jays haven’t had since Matt Bocklet graduated in 2008. Second, Ranagan has become an absolute full-field force. He clears. He plays the wing. He plays tough defense and picks up grounders. He’s such a load to stop in transition and has added real nuance to his game with how unselfish he has generally been in those situations (see previous skip pass reference). Whether or not Ranagan sometimes misses the cage, the Westchester freight train should be properly appreciated before it leaves town.

Prediction

After three years of warning the general public about Syracuse’s offensive woes, I don’t know why I’m feeling bullish towards the Orange this season. Maybe I feel like they have a chip on their shoulder and are playing with an identity and a purpose. Still, I do think that they are probably built more for the future. The year 2014, when Nicky Galasso and Randy Staats are dominating behind the goal and Mullins is back to terrorizing attackers and gobbling up loose balls, is more likely to be the year of the Orange.

Of course, Hopkins has been building for this year. I do wonder what kind of shots they can generate when the game slows down and why their defense has looked a bit lost at times. But extra possessions are a good thing. Maybe the best of things. Poppleton and the Jays will avenge the ghost of Kyle Wharton’s dive. 13-8, Jays.


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