Sunday night, the 2015 NCAA Men's Lacrosse bracket was released, with the Virginia Cavaliers playing host to Johns Hopkins as the No.7 seed. Throughout the season, a lot of comparisons emerged between this year's team and the ragtag 2011 team that shocked the lacrosse world and brought the National Championship back to its rightful place in Charlottesville.
So, that got me and my esteemed lacrosse-expert colleague, the one and only Paul Wiley, thinking about how these two teams stacked up. While I'm the eternal optimist, Paul offers a more realistic (read: "grumpy cat") take. Let's get to it.
Lucky number seven?
This one is pretty simple. The last time Virginia was the seven seed...well, this happened:
2015 had the better regular season record.
Through 14 games, the 2015 team finished with a 10-4 record with all four of their losses coming against their ACC foes. The 2011 team went 9-5 through the regular season, with losses to Syracuse, Hopkins, Maryland, and Duke (twice). Thanks to the addition of Syracuse and Notre Dame to the ACC, Virginia didn't play in the conference tournament this season, instead picking up a consolation game against Penn.
Paul's Take: The record is better; the numbers speak for themselves. And given that Virginia plays the top echelon of opponents every year, the record is better against the same caliber of competition (if not even a higher caliber this year). But the flip side here is that Virginia lost to every top-tier opponent it played in 2015. The only high-quality win came in a nailbiter against Cornell—a questionably seeded team in this year's field. A run to the national title is going to have to go through one of four teams that's already shown it can beat Virginia, and in some cases beat them handily.
Speaking of Penn, we're so, so sorry.
Both the 2011 and 2015 teams closed out the regular season against poor, poor Penn. I'm not sure if the Quakers did something to the Cavaliers in a past life, but both times the Hoos just took out all sorts of rage on their friends from the Ivy League.
In 2011, a balanced scoring attack, led by five assists from Steele Stanwick, proved that the Bratton Brothers were ancient history and the re-tooled attack would serve the Cavaliers just fine. Virginia cruised to an 11-2 win, dominating all facets of the game.
This season, the "sorry-you-didn't-make-the-ACC-tournament" consolation game was against Penn, and Virginia won 12-6 in convincing fashion. After Penn scored the first goal of the game, the Quakers didn't score again until just over 13 minutes remained in the fourth quarter. Greg Coholan put up eight points via four goals and for assists, and Ryan Lukacovic scored three of his own and added an assist.
Paul's Take: Penn in 2011 was a chance for the Hoos to practice a new style of offense—centered around Stanwick and non-Bratton midfielders—for the first time. Penn in 2015 was ... another game. Both were convincing wins, but both came against an opponent who simply doesn't have the horsepower to stay in a game with Virginia. The Quakers are on par with a first-round NCAA tournament opponent (usually; more on that below), not a Memorial Day foe.
Ryan Lukacovic...the new Steele?
I know it's a bold statement, but stay with me. At this same point through the 2011 season, the prolific Stanwick had 23 goals and 26 assists. Lukacovic has 20 goals and 26 assists. Ryan has impressed throughout the season, but there were a few games where he just didn't produce. Lukacovic went scoreless in four straight games (VMI, Richmond, UNC, Duke) before erupting for seven points (4g, 3a) and four points (3g, 1a) in back to back games against Georgetown and Penn.
Pretty safe to say Virginia fans would be elated if Lukacovic pulled of the Herculean feat of nine goals and 12 assists Stanwick rattled off in the 2011 post season, but a couple Stanwicks stand in the way first.
Paul's Take: Wait, which are those games in which Lukacovic didn't produce? UNC and Duke, the #3 and #5 seeds, respectively? OK yea that's why I'm not going to put too many eggs in the Lukacovic-as-messiah basket. I hope to see the Georgetown/Penn version carry into the postseason; if so, I could buy what Caroline's selling. But a quarter of Ryan's season-long production came in two games. The Hoos can't afford for him to go on another silent stretch.
Pundits and "experts" back in 2011 thought the Hoos were toast when the Bratton Brothers were released/suspended from the program. Shamel accumulated 20 goals and eight assists through 11 games, and his brother Rhamel had 17 goals and five assists in 12 games played. Colin Briggs carried the midfield with 22 goals and 12 assists through the first 14 games, and John Haldy, Nick O'Reilly, Mark Cockerton, and Matt White rotated through the midfield and attack.
This season, the midfield has been consistently solid behind Ryan Tucker (24g, 11a), Zed Williams (20g, 17a), and the upstart Tyler German (19g, 7a), but there's a pretty big dropoff to the second line of AJ Fish (4g, 4a) and Matt Emery (2g, 1a).
Briggs was crucial in 2011 with seven goals in three games in the tournament, including five in the National Championship game over Maryland. Both Tucker and Williams have the ability to get hot in the post season, and German has been a pleasant surprise in the midfield after Coholan shifted to attack to replace the injured James Pannell.
Paul's Take: No question the midfield has the potential to produce and the potential to get hot. But if the outside shooting is off target, this group will go church-mouse quiet. When I watch Virginia, I see a midfield unit that prefers to shuffle along the perimeter and load up for a cannon shot from distance. There isn't the kind of off-ball movement or crease pressure that results in backside goals and lay-ups. And more often than not, they lose the advantage of a good first move by dodging or rolling back into the defender's coverage. Against teams that rotate their defense quickly, each Virginia midfielder is one pass too far away from being able to shoot with time and room. Virginia too often just waits to be better than their opponent. Success in May requires forcing your opponent to be worse than you.
Quick quiz. If you had to guess who out of the 2011 and 2015 teams led in both goals and points scored through 14 games, who would you pick? If you said Steele Stanwick (23g, 26a), you're wrong. Nope, not Chris Bocklet (33g, 5a) either.
What's that? Greg Coholan? You got it.
Coholan has been a delight to watch this season, amassing 37 goals and 13 assists through 14 games at both midfield and attack. He can shoot on the move or set up on the outside. Despite taking the most shots, he's leading the team in shooting percentage, converting 41.6% of his looks, with over 70% on cage. On top of that, he's got three game winners, and only FOUR turnovers. FOUR!! For comparison, Ryan Tucker has 16, Owen Van Arsdale has 14, and Ryan Lukacovic has 22. Coholan has four, even though he touches the ball at a high rate, and he has no penalties.
His 3.57 points per game is good for 40th in the NCAA, and his 2.64 goals per game puts him in 21st.
Oh, and he's gotten really good at beating Hopkins in overtime, which could come in handy.
Caroline's #hottake: Ok, I'm not done. Greg Coholan did not, I repeat DID NOT, make the All-ACC team. Coholan was ahead of Duke's Deemer Class (70th), Syracuse's Nicky Galasso (91st), and UNC's Chad Tutton (99th) in the NCAA points per game rankings, as well as the goals per game rankings. Now, there's a chance that Coholan lost votes or attention because he split between midfield and attack, but seeing as there's approximately 85 people on the All-ACC team, they can clearly do whatever they want. Let's just look at Duke's Deemer Class. He's shooting 28.9%, with just 50% on goal. He has 33 goals, but his 19 assists put his points total two over Greg's. Class also has 20 turnovers. Granted, Virginia had no conference wins, but last time I checked, All-ACC wasn't just for the best players on the best teams, am I right, Olivier Hanlan?
Barrett the Beast.
Matt Barrett has been a revelation in the cage, playing tough in front of an inexperienced defense. In 2011, Virginia had two-time All-American Adam Ghitelman in cage, saving 53% with a 9.15 goals against average through 14 games. This season, Barrett is saving 56% with a 10.56 goals against average, but has faced 554 shots to just 430 seen by Ghitelman. On top of that, Barrett is standing behind a defense made up of walk on Davi Sacco, second year Michael Howard, and first years Logan Greco and Scott Hooper, while Ghitelman had the experience of now-Ranger Bray Malphrus and All-Americans Matt Lovejoy, Scott McWilliams, and Chris LaPierre.
For Virginia to have the success of the 2011 squad, Barrett will have to continue his stellar season, but the defense will be the biggest wild card as they face some hot shooters in the post season.
Paul's Take: Goalie play makes the difference in May. Full stop. Barrett has the stones to have a postseason like some of his Cavalier predecessors. But if he's in a shooting gallery for 60 minutes a game, even his great percentages yield high total goal numbers. With an offense that can disappear for stretches, Barrett and the defense are under pressure to keep the scoring to a minimum. Look for the group to stop backside/off-man scoring—if they're covering it well, they've learned from the season and could be in for a good run.
Face offs...maybe not that bad?
Face offs have been a well documented issue for the team this year, winning just 47% on the season. However, Virginia won the National Championship in 2011 winning just 44% of their faceoffs in the post season...but that's none of my business.
Paul's Take: Nope. Sorry. I fundamentally disagree with Caroline here. Winning in 2011 with disastrous face-off play was a fluke. Just recently, Syracuse clawed its way back into the ACC title game behind Ben Williams winning 7 of 9 second quarter face-offs. Most of the top teams have take-and-go FOGOs who can spark a three-, four-, or five-goal run. Far too often, Virginia has had to create possessions off its defense. Against elite face-off units or top-caliber defenses, Virginia falls into possession holes that are too hard to climb out of.
But the bigger concern from my point of view is that there isn't any catalyst for change this year the way there was in 2011. The Hoos HAD to re-do everything in 2011 because the focal points of their offense suddenly disappeared. This year, are we just hoping that everything will click into place when it hasn't so far? I see the numbers, I get the similarities. Unless there's some galvanizing moment to which we haven't been privy, however, I am hesitant to draw too many parallels.
Virginia kicks off their post season push this Sunday at Klöckner Stadium at 1pm against Johns Hopkins.