April 7, 2010

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Notre Dame's Nicholas Beattie tries to turn the corner on Loyola's Taylor Ebsary. © John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com
Notre Dame's Nicholas Beattie tries to turn the corner on Loyola's Taylor Ebsary. © John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com

Inaugural Big East Campaign Reveals Parity

by Justin Feil | Special to Lacrosse Magazine Online

With four weeks left in the regular season, Syracuse is the lone unbeaten at the top of the inaugural Big East Conference.

Notre Dame is at the bottom, the only 0-2 team.

Everyone else has at least one league loss and rests somewhere in the middle between 2-1 Georgetown and 0-1 Providence.

“I think that speaks to the level of lacrosse and maybe a bit of the parity we have across the board,” said Rutgers head coach Jim Stagnitta, whose team fell to 1-1 in league play with an 11-10 loss to St. John’s, also 1-1. “On any given day, particularly on a weekday, if you don’t have you’re ‘A’ game, not many people can go out and beat people without showing up. The Big East has more parity and depth than people might have thought.”

Syracuse, Georgetown and Villanova are all ranked in the top 15 in the latest poll. Without an automatic qualifier and Big East tournament until 2012, a strong finish is the only way to merit NCAA tournament selection.

“The mindset we try to impress upon our guys,” said Georgetown head coach Dave Urick, “and it’s proven out on both sides of the ledger, you play your way in and you play your way out.”

Three current Big East teams received bids last year -- Syracuse, which won the national crown, Notre Dame, which suffered its only defeat of the year in the NCAAs, and Villanova, which won the Colonial Athletic Association to earn its berth. The third-ranked Orange looks like the runaway favorite, but it will play five of its final six games on the road.

“It definitely makes things a lot harder,” said Syracuse senior captain Chris Daniello. “When it comes to playoff time, and we have to go to Baltimore or Long Island, it’ll be easier for us to adjust to the crowd and refs and different situations.”

Likewise, nobody thinks that Notre Dame is out of the picture, though the Irish just fell out of the top 20 in this week’s latest poll after suffering back-to-back defeats to Rutgers and Villanova.

“By no means is it over for them,” said St. John’s head coach Jason Miller. “The same with Providence. It ain’t going to be over until the first weekend in May. That’s when we’ll see who has the opportunity to win the league.”

Notre Dame head coach Kevin Corrigan isn’t looking at the Big East standings. He just knows the Fighting Irish have their work cut out for them to make the NCAAs.

“We’re locked in on ourselves,” said Notre Dame’s 22-year head coach. “We have to win four games to have any chance to be a part of that conversation.”

Overall, the league's teams boast a combined 32-27 record, 25-19 out of conference going into Georgetown’s Wednesday game against Mount St. Mary’s. Up and down the Big East, almost every team has a loss that it shouldn’t. The new conference could make a case for four teams in the NCAA tournament, but it will take a strong finish.

“It changes on a day-to-day basis,” said Villanova head coach Mike Corrado. “One loss to the wrong team or at the wrong time could really hurt your chances.”

Below is a look at each team’s chances, in order of their current stance in the Big East.

1. Syracuse (7-1, 2-0)

Syracuse captain Chris Daniello leads the team in scoring after moving to "X" as more of a feeder.

© Greg Wall

Syracuse is 7-1 overall with another huge non-conference game against No. 5 Princeton in the Konica Minolta Big City Classic on Saturday. The Orange follows that with another Ivy power and in-state rival, Cornell, before finishing with four Big East games as they look to secure one of the top NCAA tournament seeds and a chance to host a first-round game.

“We’re definitely focusing on Princeton this weekend,” said Daniello, Syracuse’s leading scorer. “For the long run, a higher seed definitely helps. For the seniors, we only have one regular season game left in the Dome. It’d be nice to get one or two more in there. It helps in the long run. It’s not an easier opponent, but it gives you a little more confidence.”

Providence on April 24 is their only game left at the Carrier Dome. The road stretch will test Syracuse.

“You just have to get used to playing with composure,” Daniello said. “The big thing for us is to keep clicking on offense and keep executing.”

Coming into the year, the Orange felt confident that its defense would be able to control teams. The offense has developed the way it wanted. Syracuse has scored 35 goals combined in its last two games.

“We have a lot of different guys who are stepping up and scoring,” Daniello said. “It was a matter of when our offense would come together.”

The senior attackman has been a key component in his first year at the "X" spot for Syracuse. After finishing fourth on the team in goals scored with 21 and adding just three assists last year, Daniello has 14 goals and 15 assists this season.

"I’m trying to become more of feeder,” he said. “With Stephen (Keogh) and Cody (Jamieson), it makes my job easier. I moved from left wing to 'X,' so I need to become more of a feeder. It was a little bit of an adjustment. I try to do whatever I can to help the team.”

Beating both Princeton and Cornell would go a long way in securing a top NCAA seed before the Orange turns its attention to trying to win the first Big East title.

“Syracuse will be there at the end of the year,” said Georgetown head coach Dave Urick. “It’s just a matter of where they are seeded.”

2. Georgetown (5-3, 2-1)

Dave Urick’s team missed the NCAA tournament last season for just the second time in 13 years. The Hoyas are in good shape to return to the NCAA tournament field, though they do have a slippery schedule ahead.

“I think it’s a little early to project,” Urick said. “I’m sure the guys think about it and focus on it more than they should, but the important thing is to play each game as it comes up. We have to take care of that.”

The Hoyas are 5-3 overall and ranked 11th, with their losses coming against Maryland, Syracuse and Duke. They avoided a second straight loss when they beat Navy in overtime, 13-12. They will host a desperate Notre Dame team on Sunday. The Fighting Irish can’t afford to go 0-3 in the Big East and fall farther out of the NCAA picture.

“Notre Dame still has the capability of playing themselves back in,” Urick said. “They can play themselves back in the picture. That wouldn’t surprise me at all.”

After Notre Dame, Georgetown can solidify a spot for the NCAA field against a quartet of challengers. Loyola and UMass are both ranked ahead of the Hoyas and have high tournament aspirations of their own. After a Rutgers team that is playing better, the Hoyas finish the regular season with a Villanova team that is just behind them in the polls and standings.

“It’s far from being over,” Urick said. “We could have a similar situation [to Notre Dame]. Mount St. Mary’s just won five straight. I’m sure our guys don’t look at them the same way they do other teams. Then we have a Notre Dame team that’s going to come in with a mindset that they have to make things happen. It’ll be tough.”

The Hoyas play the Mount on Wednesday.

3. Villanova (6-3, 1-1)

Michael Arvan and Villanova are off to a strong start at 6-3 after their upset of Notre Dame.

© Kevin P. Tucker

Last year, the Wildcats reached their first NCAA tournament as the automatic qualifier for winning the Colonial Athletic Association. This year, they’ll have to earn their way in as an at-large to return, and they have a strong start at 6-3.

“We’re in a position now where we have a chance if we keep playing well,” said Villanova head coach Mike Corrado.

After dropping their conference debut to Syracuse, the Wildcats rebounded with a 9-8 win over Notre Dame in a critical mid-season game between 0-1 Big East teams.

“It’s a big win because it’s a Big East game,” Corrado said. “And it’s a big win because Notre Dame is a proven program and kind of a measuring stick for us. We lost, 9-7, to them last year. We were close to them this year, so to get the 'W' was important, especially after losing Monday to Syracuse. We didn’t want to go 0-2 in the league.”

Villanova had played Syracuse and Notre Dame in previous seasons. The remainder of its Big East schedule is full of unfamiliar opponents.

The Wildcats could win their next five to set up a big game with Georgetown in the season finale. Villanova will host St. John’s, but has to play on the road at Manhattan, Lehigh (in a make-up game for a snowed-out contest), Rutgers and Providence.

“We need to keep playing well,” Corrado said. “A lot of things will be out of our hands, like who wins AQs in their league and how that affects the number of bids available. The only thing we can control is to go out and win every game we can.”

Villanova is 3-1 since moving freshman Billy Hurley into goal for sophomore Dan Gutierrez.

“It had been a close competition all the way through,” Corrado said. “After five games, not that Dan did anything wrong, but we wanted to get an idea what we had with Billy Hurley. It’s not just Billy. Overall, we have a pretty young team. Those young guys have played nine games. That has a lot to with it. They’ve gotten better and better.”

4. Rutgers (5-3, 1-1)

The Scarlet Knights are 5-3 overall, and they can make their case for an NCAA tournament if they can put together a big run to end the season.

Ahead are some big-name teams, the kind that provide the opportunities to move up in leaps and bounds. Beyond this Saturday’s game at Jacksonville, Rutgers will play at Princeton, host Syracuse and Villanova and play at Georgetown before finishing with Providence.

“I feel like we have the talent and ability that we can go out and beat anyone on any given day,” said Rutgers head coach Jim Stagnitta. “At the same time, we have the ability and talent to go lose to anybody. It’s a matter of consistency. We’ve played a couple people where I felt like we outplayed them, and come away empty. It is an important stretch. We have a lot of lacrosse to play.”

After an 11-8 loss to Army, the Scarlet Knights went to senior Billy Olin in goal for freshman Rudy Butler. Stagnitta is hoping the defense responds to the move.

“We’ve been able to create a lot of offense,” he said. “We’ve made some real glaring mistakes on the defensive end that are sometimes unexplainable. A lot of it is focusing consistently. I don’t think we’ve played our best.”

Rutgers got a lift from Justin Pennington’s presence against St. John’s. Despite an ankle injury, he scored three goals in the narrow loss. The offense will be helped additionally by the return to health of freshman attack Duncan Clancy, who has been slowed by an upper body injury. Rutgers controls its own destiny.

“When it all comes together,” Stagnitta said, “and when we play consistently on both sides of the ball, we’ll be a competitive team who can beat anyone.”

5. St. John's (4-5, 1-1)

The Red Storm hopes its comeback 11-10 win over Rutgers can be a springboard to a big finish.

“It was a big win for us,” said St. John’s head coach Jason Miller. “Any time you win a league game and do it on the road, that’s big. It was nice after we felt we let it get away the week before against Penn State. It keeps us in the mix.”

At 4-5 overall, St. John’s will need more and bigger wins to play itself into NCAA bid talk. The Red Storm need wins over quality teams. Rutgers was the first team with a winning record that it has beaten this season.

“I don’t think we’ve fired on all cylinders yet,” Miller said. “Against Rutgers, there was a 10-minute period in the second quarter where we were horrible. There was a stretch in the third quarter where we had six consecutive turnovers on six consecutive possessions. There are stretches where we play well. I don’t know if we’ve played 60 minutes as well as we can play it. When we play well, we can be competitive with everybody. I think that’s a challenge for a lot of teams.”

Miller has seen his team play better at the offensive end lately to relieve some pressure from a defense that was under the microscope too much in the early going. It’s an encouraging development for a Red Storm team that Miller believes is closer to a breakthrough in the Big East than it may look.

“Our game with Georgetown was a 9-6 game, and it was close,” he said. “Rutgers beats Notre Dame. St. John’s beat Rutgers. Notre Dame has wins over Duke and Loyola.”

6. Providence (0-7, 0-1)

It's been a rough transition for Providence and head coach Chris Burdick, who started the season with a whopping 16 players on injured reserve, including the Friars' entire first midfield.

© PU

Providence continues to search for its first win of the season, but head coach Chris Burdick has been encouraged by the Friars' play of late.

Providence lost to Siena, 11-9, and to Bryant, 9-8, its closest losses of the season since its opening-game loss to Presbyterian.

“When we came back on Siena,” Burdick said, “that was the turning point."

“I think they’re ready to turn a corner,” he added. “You’ve never seen a more motivated group of guys. If you were in our pre-game huddle, you would have never known they were 0-6. They’re working so hard. They’re not allowing the adversity to get to them, and I really respect that in them.”

The Friars play at St. John’s on Saturday in their second conference game before hosting Yale on Tuesday. They have four more Big East games beyond those, as well as a non-conference game against Brown. It’s been a big jump from the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference to the Big East.

“A lot of it is learning to believe you can compete at the next level,” Burdick said. “I think our kids have struggled with that. They’re working now to come to terms that they are good enough to play at that next level.”

Providence was dealt a whopping amount of adversity to open the season. The Friars had 16 players injured, including leading scorer Mike Feldberg, and played their first game without their entire starting midfield. They have been playing catch-up ever since then. When they scored against Bryant, it was their first lead of the season, and Christian Dzwilewski became the first Friars goalie to play the full 60 minutes in a game this season.

7. Notre Dame (5-4, 0-2)

At 5-4 overall, no team has had tougher luck. The Fighting Irish are six goals from being spectacular. Instead, they are on the NCAA bubble, looking up.

“It always starts with little things,” said Notre Dame head coach Kevin Corrigan. “We’ve lost four games by six goals. It’s a play here and a play there. It’s a combination of plays not made and plays poorly made.”

The Fighting Irish have a troubling loss to Fairfield early in the year and surrendered a late lead in an overtime loss to Drexel, then dropped their first two Big East games against Rutgers and at Villanova.

“We’ve got to stop giving away goals,” Corrigan said. “At the offensive end, we just simply haven’t been making plays. We looked at the Villanova game, and we actually broke down the good scoring opportunities, and we had more than they did.”

Notre Dame is one of the top defensive teams statistically in the Big East, but the Fighting Irish will need more offense, especially with a daunting final four games.

“We’ve been a team that’s exerted constant pressure,” Corrigan said. “There were few times we didn’t have six guys on the field that could score and put pressure on a defense. That’s how we played. This year, we feel we have some younger guys playing and I don’t think we’ve made that transition to that style yet. We’re getting better at it.”

Sandwiched around winnable games against Providence and at St. John’s is Sunday’s game at Georgetown. And looming is the already sold-out regular season finale against Syracuse. A win over either Georgetown or Syracuse would put the Irish in the mix, but it might take beating both of them to secure an NCAA berth.

“The last two days, we’ve had very intense, very good practices,” Corrigan said Tuesday. “That’s where it starts. If we can keep building on that, we have a chance.”


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