May 20, 2011

UnCensered: The Good, the Bad and the Downright Dirty of the NCAA Playoffs

by Joel Censer |

Long-stick midfielder Andrew Irving's bum hamstring could factor in Notre Dame's ability to slow Duke in transition.

After recording eight NCAA Division I men's lacrosse tournament first-round games last Saturday and Sunday, it's safe to say that my DVR was working overtime last weekend.

Let's start with the good:

* It begins with Steele Stanwick, whose late-game heroics -- he was involved in six of the Cavaliers' last seven goals -- breathed life back into a beaten and battered Virginia squad.

* There was also Kyle Wharton catching a spot-feed and breathlessly putting it behind his back, and faceoff man Matt Dolente flexing his faceoff bonafides over John Antoniades in Hopkins' 12-5 romp over Hofstra.

* For Cornell, David Lau's four markers showed that the Big Red was more than the Rob Pannell show on offense.

* Delaware -- which seems to always be playing loose and fast around this time of year -- gave the Dookies all they could handle in 15-14 barnburner.

* Canadian lefty bruiser Mark Matthews rumbled his way into the national spotlight in front of a sellout crowd in Denver.

* The hidden ball trick between behemoths Grant Catalino and Brian Farrell brought together ardent and casual lacrosse fans alike to celebrate trickery and deception.

But there was also the bad:

* Syracuse looked so inept on offense during their first two quarters it seemed like it was trying to give Siena a way to get back in the game.

* Bucknell ran out of gas in Charlottesville (star attackman Charlie Streep going out with a leg injury didn't help the end-game management).

* The Billy Bitter stop-and-go era came to an abrupt end against the Terps.

* Penn never had the same bite after freshman long pole Maxx Meyer went out with a leg injury before the Ivy League tournament.

Still, as ESPNU announcer Eamon McAnaney reminds us every week -- when he's grasping for ways to try to connect Jaret Leto's pink mohawk-infused on-stage performance with some lacrosse highlights -- we are one round "clooooooser to theeeeeeee edge." Here's a quick breakdown for this weekend's quarterfinals.

No. 2 Cornell vs. No. 7 Virginia

Why Cornell will win: The first time these two teams met in March, Virginia provided a nice blueprint for how to cover Rob Pannell. Put your best defender on him, be hesitant to slide (so he can't feed all those ready and willing Big Red cutters), and pray the shoo-in for the Tewaaraton doesn't do too much damage on the dodge.

Problem for the Cavaliers is the guy they had putting the clamps on Pannell (Matt Lovejoy) is out after having shoulder surgery. Since Lovejoy's injury, the Cavs have frankly struggled on that side of the field, and I don't think they have anyone to matchup with Pannell (or David Lau for that matter) one-on-one. Which means the Cavs will probably resort to playing a lot of zone, not the best strategy against Pannell, who will then be able to pick and choose his matchups.

Why Virginia will win: With the Bratton twins out, this Cavalier team is different. Instead of being built around explosive thoroughbreds that can get shots off on the run, they seem to be more patient and work through Stanwick at "X" more. Sure, they still get some midfield scoring (Rob Emery's sidearm bullet, anyone?), but don't expect this team to be firing away from the alleys. Personally, I think the Wahoos' transformation into a more probing, efficient offensive squad (it's worth mentioning that Chris Bocklet has been playing better of late) has probably benefited them. If only because the Cavs didn't have their usual stable of athletes (Holmes, Culver, Hughes, Koontz, Clausen etc.) on defense to match the Brattons' explosive, up-and-down, boom-or-bust split dodging routine.

Prediction: Neither team has a huge advantage at the faceoff square, and both squads are going to put up goals. But Virginia has struggled against teams that have athletes between the stripes (and Cornell has plenty of them) and has played too much paper-mache defense for me to trust them come playoffs. Big Red 15-10.

No. 3 Hopkins vs. No. 6 Denver

Ryan Young has shown more confidence turning the corner in Maryland's two-man sets, which he'll need against Syracuse's hard-nosed defense Sunday.

Why Hopkins will win: The two things Denver does very well (face off, score goals), Hopkins can counter. Because while the Pioneers' Chase Carraro (60 percent, 94 ground balls) is a faceoff workhouse who can also play offense, he'll have to contend with the Blue Jays' Matt Dolente (67 percent, 107 ground balls), who has spit out quality guys all season. In regards to keeping up with Denver's box-infused offense, Hopkins is as strong defensively as anyone in the country (third in scoring defense).

If I was a Denver fan, I'd also be worried that the Pioneers don't play with a true long-stick midfielder. Sure, Jamie McDonald uses a shortened longpole very effectively, but against John Greeley, Rob Guida, Lee Coppersmith and freight train John Ranagan, it helps to have someone wielding 72 inches of aluminum.

Why Denver will win: Yes, Hopkins is playing some 2005 Benson Erwin-Tom Garvey-Chris Watson-inspired defense. But you could argue that with exception of Virginia (a game in which Stanwick was pretty hobbled and the Cavs were already in meltdown mode), the Blue Jays haven't seen a transition-friendly offensive juggernaut like the Pioneers all season. Pierce Basset, Tucker Durkin (likely assigned the unenviable task of guarding Mark Matthews) and company will have their hands full with attackers Matthews and Alex Demopoulos, and end-to-end Canadian midfielders Cameron Flint and Jeremy Noble.

Prediction: Hopkins has been on an absolute heater since Kyle Wharton got his overtime goal taken away in the Carrier Dome. While I'm not totally sold on the Blue Jay offense, or that their youth can carry them through May, I think Wharton, Ranagan and company will score enough in this one to ticket the Blue Jays to their first final four in the post-Rabil era. 11-9 Hop.

No. 5 Duke vs. No. 4 Notre Dame

Why Duke will win: I've watched Notre Dame the past three weeks and think I have a pretty good handle on who the Irish are. Calculating and brutally efficient on defense. Smart, patient and not particularly explosive on offense.

For Duke, I think the biggest potential advantage over the Irish is between the stripes and on faceoffs, especially with stud Notre Dame long pole Andrew Irving still looking a bit hobbled from a hamstring injury. Duke has plenty of elite athletes -- I have a feeling Notre Dame is familiar with C.J. Costabile's end-to-end prowess -- and Notre Dame's jack-of-all-trades midfielder David Earl can't play every possession.

Why Notre Dame will win: Duke's a pretty good matchup for the Irish. The veteran Notre Dame defense has the ability to potentially fluster a Blue Devils offense chock full of greenhorns. Notre Dame resident initiators Earl and Zach Brenneman are going to get looks against Duke's defensive midfielders. And the Blue Devils will likely start former walk-on goalie Mike Rock, who had just a 46-percent save percentage last week against Delaware.

If the Irish are able turn to win some faceoffs, and avoid Duke's athletes and patented three-and-four goal scoring runs, this could turn into a grinding half-field slugfest that would benefit Notre Dame.

Prediction: Whoever wins the first half will have an advantage in terms of dictating the pace of the game. Personally, I think Duke (especially if Irving's not looking 100 percent) will score a couple early, try to speed up the tempo, manufacture a couple settled and unsettled goals and avoid a 2010 national championship redux. Blue Devils 12-7.

Maryland vs. No. 1 Syracuse

Why Maryland will win: Ever since I started this column last year, I feel like I've spent an inordinate time questioning Maryland's half-field offense. But I was shut up last week when the Terps dropped ACC rival North Carolina 13-6 -- much of it on the back of jitterbug quarterback Ryan Young (two goals, three assists).

I don't know if Young is playing inspired because of his late mother's passing, or because he just is more comfortable using picks and playing in those two-man sets than he was operating from behind by himself. But it seems like the quarterback is more confident turning the corner than ever before.

On the other side of the field, Curtis Holmes has shown he's a premier faceoff guy (62 percent), Brian Farrell and Jesse Bernhardt make up the best long stick duo in the country, and a senior-laden attack and backline knows they're playing for something.

Why Syracuse will win: To me, all signs point to Maryland being (gasp) better than the Orange right now. The Terrapins have a better half-field offense, a better faceoff man, are more effective in transition, deeper at the midfield, nearly equal on defense, and won't be intimidated.

But betting against Syracuse coach John Desko and his stingy defensive unit of Joel White and John Galloway is pretty tricky business. Syracuse teams have made a habit of pulling off postseason miracle after postseason miracle.

Maryland, on the other hand, hasn't won a national title since Frank Urso laced 'em up nearly 40 years ago. The Terps have often faced postseason defeats in the most agonizing fashion. (Anyone remember Passavia getting burnt three straight times by Ryan Boyle in the 2004 quarters?)

So as someone who majored in history in college, I realize it's not really on the Terps' side here.

Prediction: I can either choose with my head or my heart here. I'll go with the heart. 9-8 Terps.

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