May 18, 2012

Forman's Quarterfinal Previews, Matchups to Watch

by Matt Forman | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter

Rob Guida and Johns Hopkins' offensive midfield will draw a strong matchup against Maryland's defense, led by Jesse Bernhardt.
© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com

ESPN analyst Quint Kessenich took to the Twitter machine earlier this week and summarized the state of the season perfectly: "Nobody remembers a quarterfinal loser" and "A quarterfinal win validates your season."

Even if the ultimate goal for the remaining Great Eight is to win a national championship, Quint is right: Playing Memorial Day Weekend — not watching or grilling, like everybody else — makes the season a success.

The remaining teams are one victory away from "Shipping Up To Boston," to steal a line from the Dropkick Murphys hit track.

The NCAA tournament quarterfinal games don't quite pair mirror-image doppelgangers like they did in the first-round, but there's still plenty of intrigue. Here are the matchups I'm most looking forward to watching this weekend (and game predictions too, since I got knocked out of 10-2-Watch last week)...

Johns Hopkins vs. Maryland, Noon Saturday at Navy (ESPN2)

Maryland defensive midfield vs. Johns Hopkins offensive midfield

In Johns Hopkins' three 2012 losses, there's been one pervasive theme: Its offensive midfield has struggled to produce. In those games the Blue Jays' first-line midfield of John Greeley, John Ranagan and Rob Guida combined to score four goals (on 31 shots) and three assists, which included a 2-for-12 shooting effort in a 9-6 loss to Maryland in mid-April. That'll be a primary focus of Saturday's rematch, which could be played in front of a record quarterfinal crowd.

Greeley hasn't played since re-injuring his left knee against Navy, and he's likely out for the remainder of the season, thrusting onto the first line junior Lee Coppersmith, who scored twice in Hopkins' upset of Loyola. Maryland is well-suited against Hopkins because its defensive midfield — led by pole Jesse Bernhardt and short-stick Landon Carr — is arguably its greatest strength.

"They’ll put the ball in the back of the net," Bernhardt said after the first meeting. "To be able to slide to them, get the ball out of their sticks, maybe make some of those other guys to have to work a little bit harder and not give them the looks that they wanted, I think that really helped us.” Bernhardt will likely draw the assignment against Ranagan to start the game. But wouldn't it be fun to see Bernhardt and Coppersmith, a pair of blazing Floridians, go head-to-head?

Hopkins attackmen Brandon Benn and Zach Palmer haven't consistently created shots for themselves. So the midfielders dodging hard and banging the ball down to Boland at X, then hitting Benn and Palmer on cuts might be the best approach. Though since Coppersmith was inserted into the starting lineup, he has opened up second dodges for Ranagan.

Blue Jays defense vs. Owen Blye

Junior attackman Owen Blye scored four second-half goals against Hopkins in the first meeting, keying the Terrapins' 6-1 halftime run in the 9-6 victory. Blye mostly matched up against freshman Rob Enright, who was starting in place of Gavin Crisafulli for the first time. Meanwhile, junior defenseman Tucker Durkin held Joe Cummings, Maryland's leading scorer, without a goal.

The Blue Jays can't let Blye beat them again. How will they change things up? The guess here: Durkin will be put on an island against Blye, forcing him to initiate 1-on-1 against one of the nation's top cover defenders. It's important for Hopkins to stay disciplined. The Terps will grind out long, extended possessions and lull the defense to sleep. Cummings and Billy Gribbin are especially dangerous off-ball.

Prediction: You almost certainly have to expect a grinding, work-for-everything-you-get, one-goal game. Johns Hopkins 9, Maryland 8.

Loyola vs. Denver, 2:30 p.m. Saturday at Navy (ESPN2)

Josh Hawkins, an ultra-athletic short-stick defensive midfielder, might bump down to match up against Denver's Eric Law, or he could cover Cameron Flint.
© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com

J.P. Dalton vs. Chase Carraro

Denver's best defense: A high-powered offense that can play make-it, take-it with Chase Carraro winning faceoffs at will. That's the formula the Pioneers employed in their 16-14 win over North Carolina in the first-round upset, with Carraro winning 22-of-30 at the dot. In the first two meetings between Loyola and Denver — the first near the end of the regular season, and then in the ECAC Tournament — Dalton has won a combined 18-of-50 draws. In mid-April, Carraro earned 21-of-25, which helped the Pioneers take an 8-7 lead before Loyola scored five of the next six goals to win 12-9. Earlier in May, Carraro was 16-of-29, but 7-of-9 in the fourth quarter as Denver went on a 7-1 rally to force overtime.

For the season, Dalton has won 53.5 percent of faceoffs (185-of-346). If Dalton can keep it near 50-50 against Carraro, the Greyhounds win the game. If the Pioneers control the clock, good luck stopping their offense. It's a battle of possession.

Mark Matthews vs. Reid Acton

What happens when an unstoppable force meets and immovable object? So far, the immovable object has had the upper hand. That would be 6-foot-3, 200-pound junior defenseman Reid Acton from Toronto, who has limited fellow 6-foot-4, 210-pound Canadian Mark Matthews to two goals (on 16 shots) and two assists combined in two meetings. In 13 other games this year, Matthews averaged about 3.25 goals per game, and he's the straw that stirs the Pioneers offensive drink — he opens up the entire offense.

Matthews has made a habit throughout his career of shining on the biggest stage with incredible highlight-reel goals, like when he scored three goals in the first five minutes of Denver's first-round game against North Carolina. And Sunday, he'll have a chance to take Denver to consecutive final four appearances. Not sure he's bitter about being a Tewaaraton snub, but he could prove that point too.

The Pioneers make defenses pay for losing discipline, and Loyola will have to be extra careful. The Greyhounds have also used a short-stick to defend Jeremy Noble in the first two meetings, but after Noble's 7-assists outburst against Carolina, he'll likely draw pole Scott Ratliff. That would leave Dylan Grimm against Alex Demopolous, and Loyola could opt to short-stick Eric Law with ultra-athletic Josh Hawkins.

Prediction: Loyola has no glaring weaknesses, and that's what made the Greyhounds so consistent all year. But in the wise words of LaxMagazine.com colleague Joel Censer: "Don't ever, ever, ever bet against Bill Tierney in May." Not sure how much stock I put into the, "It's hard to beat a time three times in one year," theory, other than it being a good storyline. It's simple: Whoever plays better Sunday wins. Denver 14, Loyola 13.

Virginia vs. Notre Dame, Noon Sunday at PPL Park (ESPNU)

Notre Dame defensive coorindator Gerry Byrne runs a system that isn't matchup-oriented, but how fun would a Kevin Randall-Steele Stanwick battle be to witness?
© TD Paulius

Virginia's pace of play vs. Notre Dame

With Virginia's offense scoring an average of 7.5 goals per game in its last four games (after averaging 10.3 through the first 10 games), the Cavaliers have been increasingly content to play a more methodical, half-field style. Can you blame them for playing that way? In close games, the ball is going to be in Steele Stanwick's stick in the final minutes, and you know the reigning Tewaaraton Award winner is going to make the right decisions. But is that the kind of game Virginia wants to get into with Notre Dame, which has been so effective winning one-goal games (four in a row at one point)?

It'll be interesting to see how much zone coach Dom Starsia decides to employ, which will be somewhat based on situations — time and score — to slow things down. Will the Cavaliers push transition as much as they did early in the year, especially to avoid grinding sequences with Notre Dame's suffocating 6-on-6 defense?

Related: Some have mentioned the impact that depth could have on Sunday's game. Virginia plays a core group of 20, while Notre Dame is willing to run three midfield lines. In May, I'm not sure how much it matters. There will have been a week between games. And championship teams of recent vintage haven't had the best bench. Play with what got you to the quarterfinals.

Notre Dame team defense vs. Steele Stanwick

Notre Dame coach Kevin Corrigan and defensive coordinator Gerry Byrne run a system that's not matchup-oriented; they trust the unit to play together and they generally don't pre-determine assignments. But will Notre Dame break that philosophy to defend a generational talent like Stanwick, letting senior stalwart Kevin Randall have the honors? The Fighting Irish also have a tendency of switching on picks. Knowing the amount of big-little pick-and-pop plays Virginia runs at X, will Notre Dame hand Stanwick a short-stick in certain situations? Earlier this year, Duke coach John Danowski didn't mind that idea, because it forces Stanwick to become a dodger and not a passer, and he likes to be a feeder first.

The guess here: the Irish will switch big-big but not big-little, but they won't slide early to Stanwick. Either way, we'll certainly see Stanwick and Randall lined up against each other at some point. It's a fun clash of styles: They're two of the most intelligent, cerebral, well-respected players in the country.

As for Virginia's handling of Notre Dame's defense: I imagine offensive coordinator Mark Van Arsdale might sneak a peak at the St. John's film from the Big East Tournament. Red Storm coach Jason Miller described their approach as the following: "We wanted to get in deep on our middie dodges, and push our attack to the back side of X, to see if we could hang them up on the corner a little bit. We did a good job in our 21, our big-little offense, just in terms of getting to the short-stick, getting up on the corner, making them stretch a little bit, and then skipping the ball up top and either shooting it or moving it once and then shooting it."

Prediction: It'll be a bittersweet feeling for Corrigan to face Virginia, his alma mater and the team for which he grew up rooting. Funny how Corrigan's name always surfaces with ACC job openings, though he has spent the last 24 years in South Bend. Oh, there's a prediction to make? Can't pick against Stanwick. Virginia 8-6.

Duke vs. Colgate, 2:30 p.m. Sunday at PPL Park (ESPNU)

Sophomores Henry Lobb (right) and Chris Hipps could draw coverage of Colgate's Peter Baum and Ryan Walsh.
© Matt Riley

Chris Hipps/Henry Lobb vs. Peter Baum/Ryan Walsh

While some might expect the Blue Devils to assign fifth-year senior defenseman Mike Manley to the nation's leading scorer, Peter Baum, the thought here is that sophomores Chris Hipps and Henry Lobb will rotate on Baum, while the other concentrates on Colgate freshman Ryan Walsh (who, by the way, impressed me more than any other player in first-round games). Manley has spent most of 2012 as an interior crease defenseman, and Baum has incredible first-step quickness and agility. So Duke might be better served to use Hipps' and Lobb's length and athleticism to get on Baum's gloves and run with him step-for-step. The interesting thing about Baum, though: He's a hybrid offensive player willing to dodge from anywhere and everywhere — initiating from the top, behind the cage at X, along goal line extended, from the wing — similar to former Duke attackmen Matt Danowski and Ned Crotty.

Lobb's emergence has been one of the keys to the Blue Devils' defensive success in the second half of the year. Lobb has taken big strides since becoming a full-time starter in mid-March, which was most obvious against Virginia, when he held Steele Stanwick to one goal and two assists — all in the fourth quarter. Lobb is a massive load (6-foot-4, 205 pounds) who moves his feet well and takes a great approach to the ball.

John Danowski said after Duke's 12-9 win over Syracuse on Saturday that, with nearly a full season under their belts, Lobb and Hipps are starting to play like juniors. "Henry Lobb has been terrific," Danowski said. "In the preseason, we didn’t know if Henry was going to make that jump. But Henry certainly has. He’s given us some athleticism and some aggressiveness. He slides with authority. He’s under control. He came up with some big ground balls. Chris Hipps and Luke Duprey are learning each week."

Colgate possession battle vs. CJ Costabile

The way you beat Duke: Make the game a half-field battle and make the Blue Devils earn everything, the way Notre Dame, Maryland and Loyola did earlier this season. Easier said than done. But it starts with controlling the possession battle, specifically at the faceoff X and on ground balls; Duke senior long-stick midfield CJ Costabile, a Tewaaraton finalist, makes life between the stripes miserable for opponents. If he doesn't win a faceoff outright, he hawks the ball until it pops free, then picks up the ground ball and runs the length of the field. Colgate junior faceoff specialist Robert Grabher went 10-for-27 against UMass' Anthony Toresco, and the task only gets tougher against Costabile. For the season, Grabher has won 55.6 percent of draws (227-of-408).

Worth noting another critical component to Colgate's success: Play between the pipes. Sophomore Conor Murphy made his first career start against the Minutemen and posted 15 saves in the 13-11 victory, but Jared Madison was the incumbent who started every game to that point. Whoever is in the cage Sunday is going to face a flurry of Duke weapons who pepper the cage. The Blue Devils attack the goal in waves, and they're especially dangerous when Justin Turri and Jordan Tripucka are more involved, inverting from behind like they did against Syracuse. This opens up step-down shots for Rob Rotanz, and in turn provides more room for Jordan Wolf and Christian Walsh to go to work.

Prediction: Now, I didn't get to see a replay of the four-goal third-quarter run that tied the game at 9 because of the TV truck power outage that compromised the broadcast, but watching the rest of Colgate-UMass, I’m still not entirely sure how the Raiders won that game. Seven of Colgate's eight second-half goals were unassisted; I don't think Duke will let a similar stretch happen. Duke 15, Colgate 10.

In summary, next weekend’s final four matchups will look like this: Denver-Virginia and Duke-Johns Hopkins.


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