Nike/LM NCAA Preview: No. 10 Brown (Men)
Eight months can make for a long offseason of second-guessing and soul-searching.
After Brown's run-and-gun show ran out of steam last May, coach Lars Tiffany wondered, is it sustainable? Then he doubled down.
Tiffany lobbied hard to keep assistant coach Sean Kirwan, the architect of a transition-oriented offense that put up nearly 14 goals and 48 shots per game in 2015. The Bears ratcheted up their schedule and spent the fall focusing on skills and conditioning tailored to their brand of lacrosse.
And while Tiffany acknowledged that Brown needs to be better prepared to play six-on-six against teams that will force the half-field game, the Bears preference will be to go to the rack with reckless abandon. So expect another productive season from their three big attackmen (Dylan Molloy, Henry Blynn and Kylor Bellistri) and their two-way long poles, led by Larken Kemp.
Brown at a Glance
2015 Record: 12-5
3 Big Things
1. Sean Kirwan became a hot commodity.
INSIDE THE NUMBERS
Yes, Brown's offensive production spiked last year largely due to a new high-volume approach. But the Bears already were on an upward trajectory thanks to a recruiting philosophy that leaves room for late bloomers like Molloy, who did not commit to Brown until his junior year of high school.
Several suitors came calling for Kirwan, who played and previously coached as an assistant at Tufts and proved that the Jumbos' high-octane approach could work at the Division I level. He chose to stay at Brown, a big offseason victory for the Bears, who return nearly all of the critical parts in that system. "I'm proud of what Brown University did to allow us to step up our commitment for him and also feel very fortunate and proud of Sean for thinking this a program I want to spend more time with, that one year isn't enough to put my stamp on this program," Tiffany said.
2. Larken Kemp and the long poles always have the green light.
At first glance, it seems Brown is perilously thin at midfield, with Brendan Caputo being the only established player returning. But the Bears lean so heavily and unconventionally on Kemp, their All-American long-stick midfielder, as well as Alec Tulett and Jake Miller, that "they're the ignition switch for this up-tempo offense," Tiffany said. The trio combined for 17 goals and 19 assists last season. Additionally, Kemp and Tulett combined for 162 ground balls 52 caused turnovers. "I'll never have three poles like this again," Tiffany said.
Well, at least not after 2017. Kemp and Tulett are only juniors. Miller is a sophomore. As long as they're around to wreak havoc between the restraining lines, Brown will remain the most dangerous transition team in Division I.
3. Brown may see more of what Yale and Denver did to slow it down.
The Bears' 2015 season came to a grinding halt with a 10-6 loss to Yale in the Ivy League tournament and then a 15-9 loss at Denver in the NCAA tournament. The Bulldogs focused on limiting Brown's fast breaks off of faceoffs, even conceding 50-50 possessions to play six-on-six defense. So while the Bears won 16 of 20 faceoffs, they did not yield many transition scoring opportunities. The Pioneers, meanwhile, were extremely quick to pull the trigger on substitutions, sending in their long-stick and defensive middies from the deep end of the substitution box sometimes before their own offensive possessions had ended.
Tiffany anticipates that other teams will try similar tactics, which is why Brown spent a lot of time in the fall diversifying its six-on-six sets to include a zone offense — Marist nearly upset the Bears last season, using a zone defense to erase a 7-1 deficit and force overtime before the Bears pulled out a 16-15 victory — and pairs (2-2-2) to go with their base 2-1-3 offense.
Jack Kelly (Sr.)*
* returning starters
The Ivy League Player of the Year was the biggest beneficiary of Brown’s up-tempo offense, scoring a school-record 62 goals and leading the nation with 3.65 goals per game. Molloy’s size (225 pounds) allows him to absorb contact and finish in the unsettled situations.
Of the Bears' brigade of long poles, only Tulett is on the field full-time. He plays up on the wings for faceoffs and then retreats to close defense. Kemp and Miller are at their best when left to their devices between the restraining lines, which means there are spots open on the back line. Enter Santangelo, a freshman out of Belmont Hill (Mass.) who impressed Tiffany with how quickly he adapted to the speed of the college game and the intricacies of Brown's slide packages and zone schemes. Tiffany wants the Bears to mirror their helter-skelter offense with a high-pressure defense. Santangelo should play a role in that transformation.
Tills added 50 pounds each to his bench and squat, bulking up for his senior season. He has scored 24 goals playing a supporting role his first three seasons. Now Tills is putting his bigger body to use, creating contact with defenders to go with his shifty dodges. If opponents neutralize the Bears' transition offense and then keep their best poles on Molloy, Blynn and Bellistri, then Tills, a natural attackman who will play midfield, could become an invert threat. "He's ready to be that x-factor on offense," Tiffany said.
Biggest Question Mark
Can Brown play six-on-six?
It felt strange in the fall to be practicing so much half-field offense when the Bears' hallmark is full-field transition. But to advance further, Brown will have to find other ways to generate offense in the former when the latter isn't working. Molloy will remain the centerpiece, but "we need to be more varied with multiple offensive looks," Tiffany said.
Dylan Molloy was the biggest beneficiary of Brown's up-tempo offense, scoring an NCAA-best 3.65 goals per game. (Kevin P. Tucker)
What rival coaches say about the Bears
"They are loaded and should be able to score with anyone. Molloy is an extremely tough matchup. Their style borders on reckless at times and that makes it tough to not play into their hands as well. Defense needs to improve if they want to win the Ivy and make a deep run in the tournament."
"Return a lot from last year, which can certainly make them dangerous. One thing, though, is the Ivy League is ultra-tough and a few missteps and all of a sudden you are not even in the Ivy League tournament. This applies to this team as well as all other Ivy League teams. Will teams have adjusted to the Bears' style and have a better plan of attack against them this year? This team really struggled in their last few games last year when teams probably had a chance to plan for them more. Does that carry over to 2016?"
"Easy to play fast if you are better than your competition. Can they win in May with that style? Can they defend?"
"They’re a handful and they’re going to play unlike any other team that you see, though I think for them, the surprise factor is gone. I would be quick to say the surprise factor should’ve been gone by mid-March. Once you get a handle on how to play them, it’s a little easier. But they have a lot of talent back and a lot of motivation and they don’t play with any fear. That’s dangerous."
"A very up-tempo team, they play a wide-open style, a lot of transition. They’re very good off the faceoff. Those are the key areas that are going to be imperative to deal with."
Points produced by Brown players from traditionally non-offensive positions in 2015, including 36 points from the Bears' long-stick trio and eight from faceoff man Will Gural.
* at Kennesaw, Ga.
March 19 at Harvard
The margin for error in the Ivy League is so slim, the last thing Brown wants to do is dig itself in a hole. The Crimson have the firepower to match the Bears on offense and a more experienced defense, the latter being led by former Cornell head coach Ben DeLuca, who landed in Cambridge and back in the Ivy League as Harvard's defensive coordinator.
Brown beefed up its schedule to include non-conference games against Stony Brook, Holy Cross and Villanova, as well as a regular season-ending contest against the fifth-place team in the ACC, likely a boost to the Bears' strength of schedule for postseason considerations. Tiffany hopes the Bears' recent success and entertaining style will lead to more nationally televised (or at least streamed) games. "Exposure, exposure, exposure," he said.
Brown is all-in on this frenetic and unapologetic brand of lacrosse. Keeping Kirwan, who had attractive offers to coach elsewhere, and bringing back all of the essential players allowed the Bears to forego games in fall ball to focus on skills and conditioning. Perhaps they won’t peak so early in 2016.
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