April 24, 2014

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Boyle Point: The Two-Man Trend in Lacrosse

by Ryan Boyle | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter

This column originally appars in the May 2014 issue of Lacrosse Magazine. Join US Lacrosse today to start your subscription!

Quick, what do these words have in common? Seal. Razor. Flip. Screen. Slip.

They sound like a bizarre to-do list associated with a trip to a hardware store. Instead they represent just a few of the myriad of labels applied to the offensive technique known as a pick, broadly referred to as the two-man game.

As lacrosse fate goes, I was incredibly fortunate to be born in Baltimore and develop within the Cockeysville Rec Council program. Due to these inherent cultural advantages, I had access to some of the best youth lacrosse minds in the country. They all had playing experience, many at high levels.

When I was a kid, offensive principles revolved primarily around spacing, cuts and ball movement. We attacked defenses by identifying transition opportunities, making correct decisions and trusting our teammates through unselfish passing. In the half-field game, we focused on creating space for dodges by cutting through and using backdoor cuts when the defense ball-watched. (We had a few plays that utilized picks, exclusively in an off-ball manner. Conceptually, on-ball picks brought an extra defender into potential dodging space.)

Moving forward into my high school and collegiate career at Gilman (Md.) and Princeton, respectively, I learned higher-level pick concepts, such as "pick the picker" and "mumbo," as well as individual techniques likes seals and inside play (curls, fades and pops). Programs started to implement "big-little" picks — those involving one offensive player with a long-pole matchup and another with a short-stick defensive midfielder guarding him. These originally initiated behind the goal and near the restraining line. Soon, a new intersection point emerged along goal line extended and the "razor" pick was born.

These were strategic innovations at the time, but not necessarily as commonplace as they have become in the modern college lacrosse game. You'd be hard-pressed to see an offensive possession that doesn't feature multiple picks. The unique Princeton Pairs offense revolves exclusively around two-man games.

So why are teams using picks? What makes them so effective?

Picks force defensive communication. During a half-field set, defensive players' responsibilities change with every pass. Picks need to be called out early for effective defensive execution. Picks pose another threat that warrants attention. And if a pick call is late, the offense has already gained a small advantage.

Picks provide better odds against off-ball help defense. It's simple mathematics. (Don't worry, I won't go super data-driven nerd on you. Lacrosse and sports analytics is a separate topic for this space.) Win a 1-on-1 matchup and a 5-on-4 scenario remains. Win a two-man game and a 4-on-3 waits. Fewer defensemen equals better scoring opportunity.

Picks enable better spacing off-ball. The dimensions of a lacrosse field are set. Given the finite space, the offense can maintain proper off-ball spacing more easily with four players instead of five. Players can occupy critical areas of the field, such as the crease and high-wing shooting positions, with ample space between them. An offense packed together creates shorter (and easier) defensive slides.

Picks create favorable matchups. There's a reason why the classic pick-and-roll strategy has lasted generations in basketball. In a 1-on-1 situation, a point guard has more success against a center than his natural counterpart. In practical lacrosse terms, even though Jimmy Bitter and Joey Sankey often win their individual matchups against close defensemen, North Carolina presents far more danger with them attacking short sticks. It's no surprise, then, that the Tar Heels' offense employs a heavy dose of razor picks in their transition and settled sets.

Lastly, picks are the antidote to the shut-off defensive tactic. Any defense that chooses to shut off Albany's Lyle Thompson should think twice, considering how well he initiates two-man games. These tactics challenge the shut-off defenseman in his decision-making and technique. A misstep here, and Thompsons's teammate —likely his brother, Miles, or his cousin, Ty — gains an advantage on their matchup off the ball. Or worst-case scenario, Lyle actually frees himself to receive the ball and attack the goal himself.

Due to these inherent benefits, the two-man game won't go out of style any time soon. It's more likely it will continue to evolve strategically and with widespread implementation.

We all need to improve on our word association.

Ryan Boyle is a six-time MLL All-Star and three-time Team USA attackman, the co-founder and CEO of Trilogy Lacrosse and an ESPN college lacrosse analyst.


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