February 5, 2014

#LMRanks: No. 3 North Carolina Tar Heels (MD1)

by Gary Lambrecht | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter | College Preview 2014

Veteran faceoff taker R.G. Keenan returns for a senior season and has come up big in big games for the Tar Heels before. (John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com)

Previous: No. 4 Denver Pioneers

Vitals

2013 Record: 13-4 (ACC)
Coach: Joe Breschi (6th year)
Record at North Carolina: 59-25

Power Ratings (scale 1-5)

Offense: 4
Defense: 3
Goalkeeping: 3
Faceoff:
4

Top Returner

A Joey Sankey (Jr.)
As a third-team All-American last year, the small, hyper-quick Sankey played at times in the shadow of Marcus Holman and shared the scoring down low with Bitter, who could start slower this spring after sitting out the fall while recovering from knee surgery. Sankey is the Heels' most consistent finisher. "Joey drew the no. 1 defenseman most of last year, so he used to having a bulls-eye on him," Breschi said.

X-Factor

FO R.G. Keenan (Sr.)
Keenan statistically had an off year, wearing down during the season's second half. But he's still capable of dominating at the X in the clutch, and the Tar Heels probably will divide faceoff duties more among backups Frankie Kelly and Brent Armstrong to keep Keenan's legs fresher for the stretch run.

Tournament Trend

2009 Quarterfinals
2010 Quarterfinals
2011 First Round
2012 First Round
2013 Quarterfinals

What's New?

The Tar Heels are not known for ducking opponents. Breschi is pushing the scheduling envelope in 2014. Besides tangling with an expanded ACC that includes Notre Dame and Syracuse, the Tar Heels also must face Princeton, Bucknell and Johns Hopkins. March and April offer little respite in what might be the most arduous slate in the Breschi era. "It's a gauntlet, and it's the right time to do it," he said.

Telling Number

13.35
Goals scored per game in 2013, which was fourth-best in Division I. The Heels ranked eighth by making 32.7 percent of their shots. Carolina doesn't waste too many good scoring chances, which illuminates the importance of Keenan.

Behind Enemy Lines

What rival coaches say
"Sankey, Bitter, and Tutton are mega talents. Who emerges as a shutdown defender for the Heels?... Graduate three impact players and bring back the rest of the squad plus some key freshmen. They will be better at faceoffs and Burke will continue to improve in the cage. You are looking at a top-3 offense and a top-10 defense in this team... Doubts about defense keep them from being No. 1."

"Must replace heart and soul of team in Holman. Most talent in the country. Playing better than I can remember in "the other areas" (unsettled, ride, transition)... Strengths are Sankey, Bitter, Tutton, Keenan and Burke. Lose all-time leading scorer and captain."

"Lot of talent returning to Chapel Hill, the Holman loss will be tough and leadership may be a question based on the fact that Holman was their absolute leader last year... Having Keenan is a plus for the Tar Heels, but the new rule changes obviously had an effect on him as he only faced off at 53 percent. Does he rebound this year? If he does this team would be even more dangerous because they will have to play less defense and the offensive talent can come at you in waves."

"Sankey and Bitter are tremendous players who will have to continue to take the next step to lead the offense. The guy who may surprise some people is Pat Foster who in the past has been more of a utility guy off the bench but certainly has the ability to be as dangerous as anyone on that offense."

"This team has a ton of talent and offensively they have balance, but they have struggled at times in 6-on-6 offense, but when Carolina pushes transition they are as good as any team in the country in lighting up the scoreboard."

"Defensively this team took huge strides last year and a lot of that had to do with Burke between the pipes, but they still gave up a ton of goals in some games."

"Overall the fact remains that this team and program has a colossal monkey on its back as it has not made the final four since 1993. Is this the year they can get back to Memorial Day Weekend?"

"Talented and playing with urgency... RG Keenan starts the engine and then the horses take over, starring with the dynamic duo of Joey Sankey (36 goals, 20 assists in 2013) and Jimmy Bitter who had similar production with 32 goals and 20 assists. They will miss Marcus Holman dearly for his play and quarterback mentorship of the offense, but there is too much firepower this year to keep them out of the final four. The defense is improving in Chapel Hill as Breschi puts more recruiting focus into that half of the field (as opposed to the 90 percent/10 percent split it used to be). And Kieran Burke was an impressive steady force in between the pipes as a freshman facing an extremely demanding schedule. He looks poised to keep this role for the next three years."

"Lots of young talent returns from a very successful 2013 campaign. The hole left by the graduation of Holman and Emala will be difficult to fill. However, talented recruiting class after talented recruiting class will help."

"Offensively, they've got a load of talent, and they've got to figure out where all of that talent goes. They've got to learn to play defense when it matters – at the end of the year. They didn't do that against Denver [in the NCAA tournament quarterfinals]. They've got some pressure on them to do something big this year. It will be interesting to see how they handle that."

"They're obviously undergoing a resurgence. They had such a great run 20 years ago and more and they've clearly rebounded recently to be competing back at a really high level. They're one of the teams that are trying to compete at that championship level."

"There's a team that just rolls out skilled player after skilled player. They're scary with speed and skill on offense so scoring goals isn't going to be an issue, but for them to be special, they have to learn how to lock it down on the defensive end."

2013 Recap

In a Nutshell: The Tar Heels stumbled out to a 3-3 start, which included a one-goal loss at UMass and a triple-overtime heartbreaker at Notre Dame. Four days after a dizzying, 16-15 win against Princeton, Carolina was humbled by Duke, 11-8. After that March 13 loss, the offense kicked into high gear, Burke began to settle in, and the Heels ripped off 10 straight victories, won the ACC tournament by scoring 34 goals in two games, then crushed Lehigh by nine in the opening round of the NCAA tournament, before falling to Denver by a goal in the quarterfinals. That denied Carolina its first final four trip in 20 years.

High Point: The 16-7 rout over Lehigh, which made its second consecutive NCAA tournament appearance, was the most impressive performance in the first round. The Mountain Hawks were considered a very dangerous draw – until Carolina got out to an early lead and took the life out of Lehigh with methodical precision. A year after the Hawks came up one goal short against Maryland in the first round, they never had a chance against Carolina.

Low Point: By the time the Heels faced Denver on May 19 in the NCAA tournament quarterfinal round in Indianapolis, more than two months had passed since Carolina's last loss. A year after losing by a goal to the Pioneers in the first round, it seemed destiny might be on the side of Marcus Holman and the Heels. But down went Carolina, 12-11.

2014 Preview

Best Case: With starters returning all over the field from last year's 13-4 squad, Carolina feeds off its midfield depth and experienced defense, while faceoff man R.G. Keenan returns to his dominant form. The Tar Heels ride the game's most explosive offense all the way to M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore for their first final four appearance since 1993.

Worst Case: Junior attackman Jimmy Bitter's surgically repaired knee gives him enough problems to limit his shifty, stop-and-go style and allows opposing defenses to gang up more on Joey Sankey, thus rendering the attack unit ordinary. Carolina can't fill in the scoring gaps well enough with an unproven midfield, and the Heels struggle to get into the 12-goal area, before going down in the first round of the NCAAs.

Self-Examination: Joe Breschi on...

G Kieran Burke (So.)
"He showed a lot of confidence in the fall. He's been through the gauntlet, a lot of peaks and valleys. There were games last year when he struggled a lot, then would make two or three incredible saves when we really needed them. The bottom line is he was able to give us a 10-game winning streak, and I think he's going to build on that."

M Ryan Creighton (Sr.)
"He's a captain, and he's just a warrior. He's gone from a defensive midfielder as a freshman to the first midfield as a sophomore. Then we asked him to go back down again. He can do anything – faceoff wing, man-down defense, creating offense from that end. He scored 11 goals on only 18 shots. I'd like him to shoot it more."

M Chad Tutton (Jr.)
"He's a typical Canadian player – phenomenal playmaker, great stick work, so talented. He makes goalies make saves by putting the ball on cage, which is something a lot of players don't do as much as they should. What he has to continue getting better at is his defense."

Lacrosse Magazine will continue its 2014 college lacrosse preview throughout January and into February, with team-by-team breakdowns of the top teams in NCAA Division I, II and III men's and women's lacrosse. Follow the countdown at LaxMagazine.com/LMRanks and on twitter at #LMRanks.


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