Nike/LM NCAA Preview: No. 9 Virginia (Men)
The uproar over Virginia's lopsided 19-7 loss to Johns Hopkins in the NCAA tournament muted what otherwise was a productive 2015 season for the Cavaliers, considering their injury woes.
That's all the reason more not to overlook Virginia in 2016. The Cavaliers regain two healthy standouts in attackman James Pannell and defenseman Tanner Scales to go along with eight returning starters who were hardened by that experience.
Virginia at a Glance
2015 Record: 10-5
3 Big Things
INSIDE THE NUMBERS
The extra-man inefficiency didn’t really cost Virginia much last year — only one of its five losses came by fewer than four goals — but it still stands out as a strikingly unusual development for the Cavaliers. A healthy James Pannell, who led the team with eight man-up goals in 2014 but played in only six games last year, should help rectify the situation.
1. The time is now for Zed Williams.
The midfielder was heralded coming out of high school. While not an overwhelming force, Williams still had 20 goals and 17 assists last year — nearly double Kyle Dixon’s numbers as a sophomore (10 goals, 11 assists) in 2004, Starsia is quick to point out. But the Cavaliers definitely require more from him this spring. “He does have that ability,” Starsia said. “He’s a great kid and he’s going to respond when we say, ‘We need more from you.’” Williams and Greg Coholan will anchor Virginia’s first midfield line, and whether Williams takes another step forward will have a large say in the effectiveness of the Cavaliers’ offense.
2. Virginia has a defensive core to grow with.
Tanner Scales’ injury last season created a dicey situation for Starsia, with little experience beyond the goalie at the defensive end. In the long run, it could lead to stability. “We don’t graduate anyone in the defensive end of the field for two years,” Starsia said. “Scales, Hooper, Barrett, Greco, Howard. All the short sticks. That’s plenty of years. We’re going to be better.” That all points to a high-level 2017, but there should be improvement this year as well.
3. A final four return is very possible.
Starsia admits to feeling a bit snake-bitten in recent years. Last year Virginia lost defensemen Greg Danseglio and Tanner Scales, faceoff man Mick Parks and attackman James Pannell to a variety of issues. At the same time, he understands the results. “I don’t want to diminish what the team has done, but we clearly haven’t played to what our expectations are for the program, and it’s been a little while,” Starsia said. “It’s time for us to get back there and I think we’re back on that path.”
* returning starters
He had a 56.5 save percentage entering a miserable postseason encounter with Johns Hopkins last May and helped keep an inexperienced defense afloat after Tanner Scales’ season-ending injury in the preseason. He’ll get more help in front of him, and he should again be one of the best goalies in the ACC and the country.
The MVP of the Under Armour All-America game could be an instant contributor in a midfield that lost Ryan Tucker and Tyler German to graduation. “You’re going to see Conrad make an impression early in the year,” coach Dom Starsia said. “He could run on the first midfield out of the box.”
If Conrad doesn’t start initially, the best bet to do so is Fish, who had four goals and four assists a year ago. “We could use them both,” Starsia said. “It’s time for A.J. Fish, who has been teasing us a little bit, to step up and do it. He’s right on the edge of bursting out.”
Biggest Question Mark
Jason Murray won 50.5 percent of his draws last season. Jeff Kratky managed just 42 percent. Freshman Dave Smith is in the mix, too. Starsia thinks there is reason to believe things will be better at the X for the Cavaliers, but until proven otherwise, this looks like a team that will be happy to take an even split of possessions and go from there.
All-American goalie Matt Barrett ranked eighth in the country with 12.20 saves per game. (John Strohsacker)
What rival coaches say about the Cavaliers
"Getting James Pannell back should help them a ton. As always, a roster with plenty of talent on offense will be bolstered by the addition of Ryan Conrad."
"Their defense was exposed immensely by the Blue Jays in an embarrassing performance in the NCAA tournament. As always still plenty of talent on the roster. The main thing is how all that talent comes together."
"'Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio?' Sense of quiet optimism in Charlottesville following some lean years. Lukacovic and Williams are key."
"This is the time for Dom Starsia to fend off the naysayers who are whispering in the hallways that his time may have run out. After injuries (ex. James Pannell) and a lack of any real experience on defense in 2015, the 2016 version of the Cavaliers will be much more prepared to earn more than one league win, the grand overall total the past three regular seasons. I like this squad Dom has and his goalie Matt Barrett is one of the best in the nation. There will be no repeat of the embarrassment in the NCAA playoffs against Johns Hopkins, but I do not see a final four either."
"Why isn’t Virginia considered in the Top 5? I have no idea."
"They’re always a goal or two away lately from being right there. All it takes is that one win that convinces your team that, ‘Hey, we belong, we’re good.’ Great freshmen coming in, the Conrad kid, terrific goalie last year, skill players, guys who can shoot it, great athletes, but probably a goal or two away from figuring out they are a final four team."
"If they go out and stay healthy, they’re going to surprise you based on last year’s performance. Based on the guys they get back from injury, they’re going to be a formidable group."
Virginia is 1-11 in ACC regular season games over the last three seasons. If the Cavaliers are to return to top-five status, they need to fare better in their own admittedly loaded league.
19 @Notre Dame
March 4 vs. Syracuse
The traditional early marquee game in Virginia’s meat-grinder of a schedule brings the reloading Orange to Klockner Stadium. Yes, there are conference implications, but this is a chance to bank a victory that figures to look better later in the season than it does in March. If nothing else, it’s a barometer for where the Cavaliers stand entering an almost entirely difficult nine-weekend stretch.
Mike D'Amario Starting
The sophomore attackman scored three goals in only six games and is likely to see considerable playing time early in the season. If he emerges as a steady lefty finisher, it will only accentuate the abilities over both Ryan Lukacovic and James Pannell.
It’s hard to believe Virginia’s gone four years without playing on the season’s final weekend. If the defense gels, that drought could come to an end this May.
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