May 20, 2014

Tuesdays with Corey: Final Four Storylines to Watch

by Corey McLaughlin | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter | McLaughlin Archive | May Madness Home

"We've been there and we're ready to take that next step," Denver midfielder Erik Adamson said of the Pioneers' final four return. "We're looking to go all the way. It should be really exciting." (Kevin P. Tucker)

The final four is set for Saturday — three months and 23 days after this season's first games were played at the start of the NCAA Division I men's season way back on Feb. 1.

Defending champion and top-seeded Duke (15-3) plays fifth-seeded Denver (16-2) at 1 p.m. Eastern Saturday at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, followed by sixth-seeded Notre Dame (11-5) squaring off against seventh-seeded Maryland (13-3) immediately after.

The winners play Memorial Day Monday at 1 p.m. All games will be televised live on ESPN2 (and the championship game from the spider cam feed will air on ESPNU), and we'll have coverage all weekend long on LaxMagazine.com.

Here are a few things to keep an eye on in the lead-up to the weekend and once the games get going:

Will Duke repeat? And what does it mean if they do?

It has been five seasons since a team has repeated as NCAA Division I men's lacrosse champion. Syracuse was the last to do it in 2008 and 2009. Duke won its first national title the next season.

With two wins this weekend, in its eighth straight final four appearance under coach John Danowski, Duke would take back-to-back titles and its third in five seasons. The last team to win three in five seasons? Syracuse in 2000, 2002 and 2004.

The Blue Devils would be the first team to accomplish the feat since the tournament expanded to 16 teams for the 2003 season, and would do it in the first year of the 18-team tournament, which did play a factor this season with play-in team Bryant reaching the quarterfinals.

Future Duke teams still have a bit more winning to do before the program can be considered among the all-time elite, but with another NCAA championship, the Blue Devils would have three, trailing only Syracuse, Johns Hopkins, Princeton, Virginia and North Carolina in that category, and tying Cornell.

Duke is this year's favorite, carrying with it the top seed in the tournament and wins over two of the other three semifinalists. Since back-to-back losses to Maryland and Loyola in early March, the Blue Devils have won 11 of 12 games, averaging 17.08 goals per game while allowing 9.66 in the same span.

Duke beat Denver 14-10 on Feb. 15 in Durham in both teams' second game of the season.

"In the past, you've talked about their attack. This year, everyone was talking about their midfield. [Sunday], they were both, and that's a scary thought," Denver coach Bill Tierney said. "But we have players, too, and we'll do our best to be up for the challenge."

Can Denver, Notre Dame or Maryland break through?

While Duke is looking to make dynastic moves, Denver and Notre Dame are seeking their first NCAA titles ever and Maryland has a chance to win its first since 1975.

Of course, these Terps are much different than those Terps, but many from this current group have been to championship weekend before, as freshmen and sophomores on the teams that finished runner-up in the 2011 and 2012 title games to Virginia and Loyola, respectively.

Niko Amato started both of those games in goal for Maryland and will look to close the book on his college career with a national title, along with the rest of the Terps' senior class. Should it come to a Duke-Maryland final, this Terps group has had success against the Blue Devils during their time in College Park, holding a 6-2 record against Duke, including a 10-6 win this season and NCAA semifinal wins in 2011 and 2012.

Meanwhile, Notre Dame and Denver, two of lacrosse's western outposts, can shift some attention away from the East Coast hotbeds with a championship. If either wins, it will mark the third time in five years that a program captures its first national title, joining Duke in 2010 and Loyola in 2012.

Notre Dame has been knocking on the door — this is the Irish's third championship weekend appearance in five seasons — with their closest chance coming in 2010, when the Irish were a C.J. Costabile overtime faceoff win away from playing for the win in the title game against the Blue Devils.

This is the deepest team Tierney has had in his short, but successful tenure as Denver's coach. The Pioneers are in their third final four in four seasons.

"We've been there and we're ready to take that next step," Denver midfielder Erik Adamson said. "We're looking to go all the way. It should be really exciting."

Denver has been most known for its offense — the Canadian-American hybrid system that includes 30-plus different looks, according to senior midfielder Jeremy Noble — but this year the Pioneers' defense has emerged as another strength. Tierney, purveyor of the slide-and-recover defense during his Princeton days, is no stranger to teams that can shut you down. Denver has allowed only 6.25 goals per game in its last four outings and an average of 7.45 goals in the last 11.

Freshman Christian Burgdorf is the team's primary stopper, taking over the role previously held by Minnesota native Carson Cannon, a junior who had been the team's primary cover man his first two years. The third close defenseman is senior Teddy MacKenzie, a Bucknell transfer in his first year starting.

"They've just meshed and developed," Tierney said of the defensive unit. "You start to see a lot of the same stuff over and over again, so you do get used to that."

Who will emerge as stars of championship weekend?

With Josh Dionne out of the lineup, Duke moved second midfielder Kyle Keenan to attack. The Blue Devils run five midfielders in the second half against Johns Hopkins. How they approach championship weekend remains to be seen. (Kevin P. Tucker)

On the sport's biggest stage, new stars always emerge to the wider audience. Duke's Brendan Fowler last season, Loyola's Eric Lusby the season before that and to a certain extent, with Virginia's win in 2011, Steele Stanwick strengthened his name, and case for the Tewaaraton Award, which he won over Cornell's Rob Pannell.

Who will it be this year? There are several possibilities.

Duke sophomore midfielder Myles Jones has made a quantum leap this year, racking up 57 points on 33 goals and 24 assists. He had 21 points last season.

Jones is really more of a junior, having spent a prep year at Salisbury School (Conn.), where the former three-sport star (also basketball and football) at Walt Whitman (N.Y.) rediscovered a love for basketball and waffled between pursing basketball at the next level or remaining committed to Duke lacrosse. He and Deemer Class, who has 60 points, have filled gaps in the midfield left open at the end of last season.

"I was forced to grow and play like a senior," Jones said of stepping into a starting role after the graduation of three key midfielders from the title team. "Being comfortable and being confident is what makes me successful. The guys around me playing well eases the nerves. I get nervous before games."

How can you be more clutch than Notre Dame sophomore attackman Matt Kavanagh? His game-winner in overtime ended Albany's dream season, and not only did he score the game's final goal, but Kavanagh also showed his trademark hustle plays and signs of his hockey background.

He's come up big in big games before, already with MVP honors of this year's ACC tournament and, before he even arrived at Notre Dame, MVP of the Federation of International Lacrosse (FIL) under-19 tournament playing for Team USA in Finland. Like Jones, Kavanagh took a post-graduate year, at Hotchkiss School (Conn.) after his high school career at Chaminade (N.Y.).

No matter what happens on championship weekend, the future for Denver is bright on both ends of the field with freshmen attackman/midfielder Zack Miller and Burgdorf, who will likely draw Duke senior attackman Jordan Wolf in a key matchup. The final four could be their coming out party.

Don't forget the only Tewaaraton Award finalist left standing in Wolf, and Maryland fifth-year senior attackman Mike Chanenchuk, or the baby Terps on offense, led by Matt Rambo and Connor Cannizzaro, who will get their first taste of championship weekend. Chanenchuk leads the offense in goals (35) and assists (22).

And, as always, the faceoff specialists and goalies from every team can swing momentum. More on that...

Goalies and faceoff specialists, oh my...

Of any of the goalies in the final four, Amato is the most entrenched in his starting, full-game role and he has the best save percentage (56.6).

On the rest: Notre Dame's Conor Kelly (48.0) was out of the starting lineup earlier in the year but has started the last six games; Denver uses a two-goalie system with Ryan LaPlante (57.9) starting and Jamie Faus (54.7) relieving him in the second half; and Duke's Luke Aaron (51.8) took over the starting role from incumbent Kyle Turri (45.3) after Duke played Denver earlier in the year, but Aaron has been pulled in favor of Turri at times this year, notably in the March loss to Loyola and again Sunday against Johns Hopkins. Turri, the goalie throughout Duke's national title season last year, wasn't tested much Sunday, with the Blue Jays taking only two shots on goal against him.

"We have several competent goalies," Danowski said Sunday. "The best one may be a redshirt freshman. Why not [change them up]? If Luke is not feeling it or it's just not happening for him... I think you saw Kyle pick up a ground ball and he clears the ball, [he] does a great job out of the goal."

The pure stats on the faceoff specialists: Maryland's Charlie Raffa (67.8), Duke's Brendan Fowler (59.5), Notre Dame's Liam O'Connor (59.9) and Denver's Chris Hampton (51.9). Of them all, Raffa and Fowler are the most familiar with each other and could meet in the final. They are friends, hanging out at home on Long Island in the summer. They faced off against each other in high school, with Raffa's St. Anthony's (N.Y.) team annually competing with Fowler's Chaminade (N.Y.) team in the Long Island Catholic league rivalry. Both got to know each other better through faceoff sessions with Long Island-based faceoff instructor Matt Schomburg, and working camps together.

Quick turnarounds

Three of the final four teams have played three games in two days this season at least once this season. Maryland is the only team not to, since the Terps lost to Notre Dame in the ACC tournament semifinals. Their closest span between games was three when they played Villanova on March 14 and Michigan on March 18.

Duke played two games in three days twice, once in February and again in March.

Denver played on back-to-back days in February and faced a tough two-game stretch in three days in March: in California against Notre Dame and at home against Penn State, both wins. They did the same to win the Big East tournament.

Notre Dame won the ACC tournament, playing twice in 72 hours against Maryland and Syracuse.

Duke may have to manage the turnaround the most from a personnel standpoint. The Blue Devils will have a different look with Josh Dionne (leg) all but officially out of the lineup. Kyle Keenan started in Dionne's place on attack in the second half of the Blue Devils' win over Johns Hopkins on Sunday in the quarterfinals after Dionne was knocked out of hte game. Keenan had been running on the second midfield. Instead of putting someone in his place, Danowski and company elected to run just five midfielders in the second half. In a potential two games in three days scenario, a team needs depth.

Danowski said Tuesday morning that junior midfielder Tanner Scott and sophomore John Shaffer would practice with the second midfield, but if they play on Saturday will be a game-time decision and depend on the pace of the game. Danowski also cited expected temperatures in the 70s as potentially helping things.

As for Dionne, he said Sunday he was looking forward to what could be considered a week-long coaching internship with the Duke staff. He had an MRI on Monday night. On the hit that knocked him from the game Sunday just before halftime, he said he didn't see it coming: "I was staring at that top corner... ready to yank it."


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