NCAA men's lacrosse championship: The key players to watch in this year's quarterfinals
After a wild first round, the DI Men's Lacrosse Championship field has been whittled to eight teams, which means four games to decide who reaches Boston.
Let's take a closer look at what will decide who keeps dancing:
1. Albany vs. Denver: The Faceoff Face-off
Sometimes, you speak things into existence.
When I wrote about the ways TD Ierlan and Trevor Baptiste were re-writing NCAA faceoff history last month, I quietly hoped the two would meet in the postseason so we could see, just once, their respective brilliance go head-to-head in the circle.
When I asked Albany's Ierlan about whether he’d ever met Baptiste, he said the Denver senior was one of the nicest people he’d ever met and he hoped they'd play each other some day.
Now, it’s show time.
Here’s a quick tale of the tape:
* denotes NCAA record
|Player||2018 FO Won||2018 FO Taken||2018 FO%||Career FO Won||Career FO Taken||Career FO%|
What we’re looking at here is a battle between the greatest faceoff career lacrosse has ever seen, in Baptiste, against the greatest faceoff lacrosse has ever seen, in Ierlan.
Baptiste has one inch and 40 pounds on Albany’s sophomore wunderkind, but Ierlan’s always favored his technique instead of power to succeed in the faceoff circle. Now we get to see if his quick hands are enough to beat the strong, seasoned Baptiste.
This matchup also matters outside of the faceoff circle, of course. These two teams dominate play because of their incredible faceoff men. Albany (34:24/game) ranks first in the country in time of possession, while Denver (33:15) ranks third. Denver ranks first in the country in scoring defense (7.44 goals allowed/game) while Albany ranks second (7.71).
Ierlan and Baptiste make it tremendously hard for the opposing teams to find their footing, offensively. How these ball-dominant teams react to the possibility of losing more faceoffs than they’re used to will be fascinating.
I am so excited.
2. Yale vs. Loyola: Let Reeves Cook?
In Yale vs. Loyola (MD), the obvious angle is to pit Bulldogs’ Ben Reeves vs. the Greyhounds’ Pat Spencer. Reeves is second in the country in goals; Spencer is third in the country in assists. On the season, they both rank in the top five in points per game, Spencer at 5.69 and Reeves at 5.65.
Slap a headline about “shoot-first vs. pass-first” on this thing and call it a day, right?
Not so fast!
NCAA lacrosse: Tewaaraton Award finalists announced for 2018 season
While Yale obviously wants its stud Reeves to play to his potential, there’s more pressure on his supporting cast to play well than Reeves himself.
In Yale’s three losses this season, Reeves averaged 4.00 goals per game, compared to 2.93 goals per game in its 13 wins. His supporting cast during those three losses? 5.00 goals per game, compared to 12.07 in the 13 wins. Basically, when a team is able to shut out Reeves' teammates, Yale isn't nearly as successful, regardless of what its absolute best player is doing.
This brings up a sort of “let Reeves get his” scenario: does Loyola let Reeves cook and focus on Yale’s secondary goal-scorers?
Matt Gaudet has 30 goals this year, and dropped a seven-piece against Penn earlier this year. Jackson Morrill did the same in the first round, and has 37 goals of his own this season. When those guys show up alongside Reeves, Yale is nearly unstoppable. When the Bulldogs’ star is the only one shredding defenses, it’s a different story.
Unsurprisingly, as far as Spencer is concerned, Loyola plays substantially better when he’s able to distribute at will. In the Greyhounds’ three losses this year, Spencer averaged 2.33 assists per game, compared to 3.92 assists per game in their 13 wins.
It’s the nature of goals vs. the nature of assists: when a distributor is playing well, everyone is playing well.
3. Maryland vs. Cornell: Top-Heavy Terps
All year long, Maryland has asserted itself as one of the country's best lacrosse teams, if not the best. Its No. 1 seed in this tournament commands an obvious and well-earned level of respect. And yet, in the first round, the Terps struggled with a crafty Robert Morris squad for an entire half before shaking free and winning, 14-11. This is because the Terps, while strong, are thin.
(Quickly, Lacrosse Reference's "weighted contributors" stat records how many players on a team record a shot, a penalty, a forced turnover, or anything that shows up in the play by play in each game. It also weights contributions from bench players higher.)
According to Lacrosse Reference's data, Maryland ranks 62nd out of 70 teams in terms of weighted contributors, with just 13.5 per game. What does this mean? Simple: it means the Terps are top-heavy. They rely on a small circle of high-impact players, for better or worse.
Consider this comparison with the Terps' next opponent, Cornell, which ranks 22nd in the nation in weighted contributors:
|Team||20-point scorers||10-point scorers||5-goal scorers||Weighted Contributors|
This comparison seems a bit counterintuitive, since Cornell has Jeff Teat (#FreeJeffTeat), the highest-scoring player in the country. One might imagine Teat would monopolize Cornell's plays, no?
Well, don't forget a big chunk of his 97 points comes from 60 assists. He's as much a teammate-improver as he is a one-man wrecking crew.
Now, Maryland's thin roster has withstood great performances from a number of very strong teams this season. And it certainly helps when your thin roster is bolstered with a player like Connor Kelly.
But as the Terps face stiffer and stiffer competition in this tournament, the question becomes: when will the saturation backfire?
4. Johns Hopkins vs. Duke: Beware The Under-Jays?
Our fourth game is a matchup of two powerhouse programs, one modern and one classic.
The Blue Devils have made the last dozen NCAA tournaments, reaching the final weekend in two-thirds of those appearances. Johns Hopkins, of course, has won nine tournament championships, but has reached the final weekend just once since 2008.
4 goals in 34 seconds? We got you .— Duke Men's Lacrosse (@DukeMLAX) May 13, 2018
Duke has appeared the more consistent of the two teams all season long, and a few stats point to this being an uphill battle for the Blue Jays, who were almost ousted in the first round before rallying in overtime to beat Georgetown.
Let’s look at three pretty telling stats:
1. Man-Up Offense
Penalties happen. You like to avoid mistakes, but you can't avoid them all. What you can do instead is make sure you capitalize on your opponents' mistakes, and try to limit the damage when you make your own. Duke is great at capitalizing on opponents' mistakes, turning those penalties and man-advantages into goals more than half the time. That's an impressive rate. JHU's closer to one-third. That's not bad, but it's not great. Strike one.
2. Ground Balls/Game
In a game against a team that is more than adept at scoring, Johns Hopkins will want to try and keep possession as frequently as possible against the Blue Devils. You know what helps your time of possession? Winning ground balls. Duke does that better than all but nine teams in the country, while the Blue Jays are decidedly middle-of-the-pack when it comes to ground balls. Strike two.
3. Shot Percentage
We've determined Duke is good when it goes a man-up, and Duke is really good at getting the ball. It sounds like Duke could be getting a lot of chances to shoot the ball. When the Blue Devils shoot, what happens? They score -- a lot. They score eight percent more frequently, when shooting the ball, than the Blue Jays. They're the second-most efficient team in the country. Strike three.
So, to recap, Duke is better at converting when it has a man-advantage, more prone to winning 50-50 balls, and the more efficient team when shooting the ball. Hopkins could have a big performance up its sleeve, but it’ll be fighting the numbers until the final whistle.