Somehow, it's already mid-April and the No.20 Virginia men's lacrosse team is 11 games into their 2016 campaign.
This season has been a bit of an enigma. The Hoos have a couple questionable losses like scoring just four goals against Loyola in their season opener and dropping a mid-week contest in overtime to upstart High Point. At other times, like in their 9-0 win over Richmond, the Cavaliers looked like post season contenders.
Going into today's matchup with the No.11 North Carolina Tar Heels, the Hoos sit at 6-5 (0-2 ACC) with games against Duke and Georgetown remaining in the regular season. Virginia's losses are to No.15 Loyola, High Point (in OT), No.9 Syracuse, Cornell, and No.1 Notre Dame (in OT). The Hoos have wins over Drexel, Penn, St. Joe's, No.16 John's Hopkins (in OT), VMI, and Richmond.
While the loss to High Point sounds bad, according to Inside Lacrosse's (unofficial) RPI, Cornell comes in as Virginia's worst loss with an RPI of 30 (High Point's is 22). Hopkins is Virginia's only ranked win so far this season, but games remaining with UNC and Duke give the Hoos a couple more chances to get some impressive wins before the ACC tournament. If the Hoos don't finish in the top four of the ACC, they won't make the conference tournament, but will get a game with No.2 Brown as a consolation.
Both Inside Lacrosse and Lacrosse Magazine have Virginia in the post season in their first "bracketology", playing on the road at either Brown or Denver in the first round. In order to be eligible for the post season, you must finish with a .500 record or better, so that is something to keep an eye on going forward.
The biggest struggles for the Cavaliers this season have been shooting and goalie play. In their season opening loss to Loyola, the Hoos shot just 10% (4 of 40), and losses to High Point and Notre Dame saw Virginia shooting just 29% and 23%, respectively. Goalie Matt Barrett holds just a 48.7% save percentage on the season, with single digit saves in six of Virginia's 11 games. His best performance, by far, was last weekend's shutout of Richmond in which Barrett registered 12 saves and zero goals against.
Virginia's offense is led by James Pannell with 21 goals and 10 assists. Ryan Lukacovic has 27 points with 16 goals and 11 assists, and Zed Williams comes in second on the team in goals scored with 17. Greg Coholan (21 points) and Mike D'Amario (17 points) round out the top five for the Hoos. First year Ryan Conrad has been a good addition to the team with eight goals and two assists, and Matt Emery (6g, 2a) has played extremely well over the last couple of games with three of those goals coming in wins over Hopkins and Richmond.
Defensively, the Hoos have started clicking. All-American Tanner Scales (33 ground balls, 12 caused turnovers) anchors the defense, and Scott Hooper (team-high 18 caused turnovers), Zach Ambrosino, and Logan Greco have all seen significant playing time. Long stick midfielder Michael Howard has been fantastic with a team-leading 46 ground balls and 15 caused turnovers. Short stick defensive midfielders Carlson Milikin, and Will McNamara lead a strong unit that have harassed opponents.
Jason Murphy has been fantastic at the faceoff X this season, winning 64.8% of his attempts, good for 10th in the NCAA. As a team, Virginia is No.1 in the NCAA at ground balls per game with 39.6 per game.
North Carolina is coming off of an overtime victory over Duke and hold a 6-4 (1-0 ACC) record on the season. The Tar Heels have wins over Michigan, Johns Hopkins, and Richmond, but losses to Maryland, UMass, and Hofstra.
Virginia will need to watch out for Carolina's hot scorers Steve Pontrello (30g, 8a), Chris Cloutier (22g, 9a), and Patrick Kelly (18g, 5a). Luke Goldstock (15g, 16a) is a scoring threat, but the lead assist man for Carolina. Stephen Kelly will be a challenge for Murphy at the faceoff X as he boasts a 62% win percentage. Carolina's goalie Brian Balkam has struggled in cage with a 46% save percentage.
The Hoos are looking for their first regular season ACC win since a 17-12 victory over Syracuse in 2014. Virginia's last ACC win came over Carolina in the 2014 ACC tournament.
Tune in at 2pm on ESPNU to see Virginia and North Carolina in action.