April 4, 2014

NCAA Notes: Defense Turning Heads for No. 4 Tar Heels

by Gary Lambrecht | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter | Lambrecht Archive

Tough defense has become a key to the Tar Heels success this spring. (Peyton Williams)

No. 4 North Carolina (8-2) may have turned more heads than any team in the country the past two weeks, and it's not because of spectacular offensive players such as attackmen Joey Sankey and Jimmy Bitter.

Are the Tar Heels changing their identity by becoming more of a defensive-minded team? The evidence suggests maybe so.

Carolina, despite injuries that have hampered its close defense, ranks eighth in the nation in scoring defense (7.5 gpg). Sophomore goalie Kieran Burke (.575) ranks eighth in save percentage. The Tar Heels also are 14th in man-down defense (.711).

The gambling, wild checking and over-extending on defense in past years seems to be disappearing in Chapel Hill. Defensive discipline and ground ball efficiency are on the rise, as illustrated in the past two victories over Maryland (11-8) and Johns Hopkins (13-9).

Carolina shut out the Terps in four extra-man situations – causing three of Maryland's 16 turnovers under man-down pressure. On Saturday, the Tar Heels held Hopkins to one, second-half goal and killed four of six penalties. In both victories, senior SSMs Ryan Creighton and Mark McNeil were outstanding.

"In my first few years there, we definitely worked hard to find guys who could score," said sixth-year coach Joe Breschi. "We've really tried to put more of an emphasis on defense [lately]."

"It's a credit to guys accepting their roles and buying into what we're doing," Creighton said. "When we're in six-on-six defense, we want seven guys defending whoever has the ball, knowing when to slide. Since a month ago, we've learned a lot and gotten better. Trust is a huge part of it."

Enjoying Albany-Hopkins for Last Time

When no. 18 Albany visits Homewood Field on Friday night to face 10th-ranked Johns Hopkins, it will mark the 13th time that coach Scott Marr has brought the Great Danes south to face the Blue Jays, coached by his fellow alum and ex-teammate, Dave Pietramala.

For the foreseeable future, it also will mark the last time Albany makes the six-hour, regular-season trek to renew a series that has gotten increasingly interesting in recent years. Hopkins leads the series, 10-2, although the Great Danes came from behind to pull out a 10-9 thriller last April – on a night when the unstoppable Lyle Thompson was held scoreless.

With Hopkins poised to jump to the Big Ten in 2015, the Blue Jays are being forced to cut off some associations to accommodate their first-ever conference schedule, which will include games against Maryland, Michigan, Ohio State, Rutgers and Penn State.

"I know Dave has some traditional opponents he's trying to keep. We were kind of the last ones in, first ones out. I understand," Marr said. "I'm hoping down the road that we can resume it. It's really helped our program and it's been great for our guys."

The Hopkins game, like Albany's typical February trip to the Carrier Dome to face Syracuse, has given Marr valuable sway on the recruiting trail. The chance to play at two of the game's storied venues helped to convince the Thompson superstars (Lyle, Miles and Ty) to make a go of it at Albany.

Then again, the incredibly talented Thompsons attack unit – Lyle leads the NCAA in assists (34) and points (55) while Miles leads the nation with 4.13 goals per game – has also been a promotional machine for Albany (4-4). They have been the subject of stories either done or in production on ABC World News, CBS Evening News, NPR and HBO's "Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel."

Marr acknowledged that the heavy attention has created some distractions, although he refused to use them as an excuse for recent losses to Bryant and Canisius.

"We haven't been able to adapt at times to teams that have slowed the ball down against us," said Marr, whose Great Danes continue to lead the nation in scoring (15.75 goals per game) while winning only 39 percent of their faceoff attempts and being out-shot on average, 46-43. "We've been too impatient on the offensive and defensive ends. We've got to let the game come to us a little more."

As for the extra attention Albany has commanded in 2014, Marr said, "It's good to be in the spotlight. It certainly is good for recruiting. But it's been a little bit difficult. I've told the guys if there's something you don't want to do [with the media], it's OK. We have to find a way to embrace this and move through it."

End of an Era for Maryland-Virginia?

In the wake of Maryland's 9-6 victory over Virginia – the last regular-season meeting between ACC rivals that have met 91 times – it was interesting hearing the opposing coaches' takes on the end of an era.

No. 5 Maryland, headed for the Big Ten, would love to keep playing their regional neighbors from Charlottesville. It will be hard for Maryland to get much RPI juice from playing Rutgers, Michigan, Penn State and Ohio State. No. 9 Virginia, which is in the revamped ACC that includes Syracuse and Notre Dame, surely doesn't need a game with Maryland as much.

"We have great respect for Virginia. We have great respect for the tradition of this rivalry," Maryland coach John Tillman said. "We hope it continues. We hope it's something [Virginia] want to do. If that's not something they want to do, there's not much I can control."

"There's a lot to consider," countered Starsia. "We had the no. 1 strength of schedule going into the NCAAs last year, and [had to] add Notre Dame to what I've got.

"There was some talk in earlier years about trying to move Maryland [up earlier in the season] to break up this run of big games that we have [in March and April]. We couldn't get them to do it. They're probably willing to do that now. I don't think it's a good thing for our sport that Maryland and Virginia may not play in the regular season in the future. We've got plenty of [big] games on our schedule."


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