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Virginia Lacrosse NCAA Tournament Hopes Hang in the Balance

With a 5-5 record and the end of the season rapidly approaching, can the Wahoos avoid the fate of the 2004 Virginia lacrosse squad?

Eric Hartline-US PRESSWIRE

With only three regular season games and the ACC Tournament remaining, the University of Virginia Men's Lacrosse team finds themselves in an unfamiliar position. Ranked 19th in the Nike/Inside Lacrosse Poll and 18th in the Coaches Poll, the Cavaliers and their 5-5 record leave them precariously close to being left out of the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2004.

Virginia came out on the wrong side of three one-goal games, including an overtime loss at the Carrier Dome to Syracuse and heartbreakers to Cornell and Ohio State at home. In the last two games, the Cavaliers have been handled easily by Johns Hopkins and Maryland after getting off to uncharacteristically slow starts (down 9-1 to JHU and 5-1 to UMD). So what comes first? Confidence or results?

The 2004 Wahoo squad, featuring big names such as Tillman Johnson, Brett Hughes, AJ Shannon, Mike Culver, Matt Ward, JJ Morrissey, Kyle Dixon, and Matt Poskay, finished 5-8 in a disappointing season after 2003's NCAA Championship season. Is this year's team heading towards the same fate? Let's look at some statistics.

For the purpose of comparison, I looked at only the first ten games played by the 2004 team. For individual defensive statistics (ground balls, caused turnovers) and some team statistics (clears, extra man opportunities), the full season stats were used.

When it comes to the attack, the 2013 team is more proficient at scoring, having notched 118 goals in ten games for an average of 11.8 per game. The 2004 Wahoos only scored 119 goals all season in 13 games, and through their first ten games Matt Ward and Co. averaged only 8.9 goals per game.

The most obvious problem for both squads lies with shot selection. 2004 connected on 22.8% of shots they took, with the low point coming in an 11-2 loss to Maryland in which they shot 7%. This year's team is only slightly better, scoring 25.5% of the time and averaging 46.2 shots per game. Against Hopkins, Virginia had their worst outing with 15.4% on 8 for 52 shooting. Neither team had an issue with sharing the ball, however, with both squads recording assists over 60% of the time.

Third year attackman Nick O'Reilly leads the 2013 team on offense with 16 goals and 20 assists while also boasting the best shot percentage amongst offensive starters with 38.1% (71.4% on goal). Classmate Mark Cockerton has 29 goals on 93 shots (31.2%), comparable to last season's sniper Chris Bocklet (36g on 114 shots, 31.6% in 16 games).

Midfielders Rob Emery (14g, 5a) and Ryan Tucker (12g, 3a) have been struggling this season with regards to shot selection. Both 'Bash Brothers' are shooting sub 25%, with the majority of their outside bombs missing wide or contributing to the opposing goalie's save count. Something to keep in mind is that Emery and Tucker are contributing significant time on defense this season due to the off season rule changes and the loss of fourth year captain Chris "Shocker' LaPierre to injury, so fatigue could possibly be affecting their offensive production.

When it comes to face offs and possession, the 2013 team has put themselves in a better position. In 2004, Virginia controlled only 48.8% of face offs, while 2013 is snagging 53.6%. Timing of wins has been an issue this season, however, with the team often missing out on opportunities late to keep the momentum or stage a comeback.

The 2004 Wahoos had a serious turnover issue. They averaged 20.4 turnovers a game, including giving the ball away a staggering 35 times (yes, thirty-five...that is not a typo) in a 7-6 loss to Air Force. Conversely, Virginia hands over possession 12.5 times per game this year, with a high of 17 against Cornell. This year's team is also much more successful on clears, succeeding 92.7% of the time compared to 2004's 82.6%. Thirty five turnovers. Wow.

Ground balls and extra man opportunities are a wash for comparison purposes as both did well off the turf (37.8 and 39.2) and did below average with the advantage (27.5 in 13 games and 29.6 in 10). Comparatively, four of the last five seasons the Cavaliers have converted at least 47% on EMO, with an impressive 52% success rate in 2011.

Defensively, the 2004 and 2013 squads are interesting. Tillman Johnson was an absolute beast in the cage in 2004, averaging over 13 saves per game and finishing the season with a 59% save percentage (over all 13 games). He had one game all season with less than double digit saves (9 in a win over JHU), and notched an incredible 22 saves against UNC in the ACC Tournament. Virginia this season has swapped between first year Dan Marino (9.12 goals against, 45% save percentage) and second year Rhody Heller (11.49ga, 47.6%), with Heller getting the last three starts.

This season's squad utilizes a mixture of man and zone defenses, and has improved significantly over the past few games, although they are still giving up 10.0 goals per game. Sliding and close defense struggled throughout the early portion of the season, leaving the young goalies to defend extremely difficult, high percentage crease shots. First year Tanner Scales has started the last four games and caused 12 turnovers in the process to bring his season total to 20, while third year Scott McWilliams is second in the nation with 27 caused turnovers. For reference, consider that 2004's stellar defense, which only gave up 8.8 goals per game and was made up of players like Mike Culver, Steve Holmes, and Brett Hughes, only tallied 55 caused turnovers on the season.

Reviewing these statistics is also an interesting show of how far the game has progressed in the last ten years. The 2004 team was ranked no. 15 after ending the season with a loss to Penn State and falling to 5-8. This year, the 5-5 Virginia squad is barely sneaking in to the top 20 as names such as St. John's, Bucknell, and Drexel reside above the perennial power house.

In comparing stat sheets from Virginia's 2013 losses, it would be hard to tell which team emerged victorious as the Wahoos are competitive or dominant in all major categories with one exception: shot percentage. Just like basketball, shot selection is key and the offense needs to play with some confidence and desire to right their season. This team has a lot of talent and a lot of heart, it just needs to play that way. The last few games the offense is living and dying by the outside shot, lacking motion inside to challenge opposing defenses.

In order to make the NCAA Tournament, the Wahoos must win this weekend against a hot Carolina squad and take the show on the road to rival Duke. Working in Virginia's favor is the fact that they have no 'bad losses' so far this season as all five losses have been to top-15 ranked teams (based on this week's IL/Nike rankings). With a late season push, the Cavaliers could make it back into the top 15, if not top ten. In order to be successful, Virginia's goalie will have to get hot, the defense will have to clamp down, and the offense needs to play aggressively and with authority.

Carolina @ Virginia, Saturday, 3:30pm, Klockner Stadium, ESPN3 with coverage.

Check out Virginia Lacrosse stats here.