The mantra that defense wins championships could be tested this weekend.
The four teams left in the NCAA tournament at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia feature some of the top offenses in Division I. Cornell leads the way, ranking second in the country with 14.6 goals per game. Duke is third with 13.8, Denver fifth with 12.7 and Syracuse 13th with 11.7.
All four semifinalists rank in the top 10 in points per game and in the top 11 in shooting percentage.
ESPN analyst Mark Dixon said he is not surprised that the teams still alive in the postseason have prolific offenses.
"The offenses in this year's championships are explosive," Dixon said. "I think the new rules have really helped these units. Gone are the days where teams could run and hide with the ball. Even low-scoring games are more a product of good defense or goaltending, not stalling. You need firepower to excel, and these teams illustrate that."
Here is a look at each offense and an under-the-radar player who Dixon highlighted:
No. 1 seed Syracuse (15-3)
The Orange has scored just 19 goals in its first two tournament games, but its strength is in the balance between the starting attack and midfield units.
The attack of junior Derek Maltz, sophomore Kevin Rice and redshirt freshman Dylan Donahue has combined for 122 points, while the midfield of seniors JoJo Marasco and Luke Cometti and junior Scott Loy has totaled 119.
Syracuse coach John Desko hoped for that balance this season.
"We decided early on that if we were going to have success with our offense, we were going to have to share the ball and not rely on one person, and come up with an offense that was going to have a lot of movement, try to work off the ball, and just try to get people open to score goals in different fashion than just giving it to your best player and going to the goal," Desko said. "We share the ball well, we execute pretty well, and we move pretty well off the ball, and I think that's why we've had some of the success that we've had with our offense."
Dixon said he has been impressed by Donahue, who had a hat trick in the team's first-round win against Bryant and scored the game-winning goal against Yale in last Saturday's quarterfinal.
"You know about Maltz on the inside, and we've gotten to learn about their middies, led by Marasco and [redshirt sophomore midfielder Henry] Schoonmaker and Cometti," Dixon said. "They have all stepped up at various times this season, but Dylan Donahue is somebody that needs to be contended with."
No. 4 seed Denver (14-4)
The Pioneers' accuracy plays a big part of their proficiency. The offense ranks third in the nation in shooting percentage at 34.1 percent (228 of 668), and four starters are converting more than 38 percent of their shots.
Coach Bill Tierney credited offensive coordinator Matt Brown with crafting game plans that maximize the players' skills.
"We have some box lacrosse guys, Canadian guys that do a lot of our shooting, and they're used to shooting at a four-by-four [goal]," Tierney said. "So I think for some of them, [the] six-by-six [goal] probably looks like they're throwing it into the ocean from the shore. … But mostly it's just a combination of a great offensive coordinator and kids that buy into what he says and work very hard at understanding just how important shooting is."
Senior Eric Law and sophomore Wesley Berg headline Denver's attack, but Dixon pointed out that sophomore midfielder Eric Adamson scored the game-tying goal and got off the shot that Law converted into the game-winning score in last Sunday's 12-11 win over fifth-seeded North Carolina.
"Who got the ball at the end of the game? It was Adamson," Dixon said. "I know he got the matchup, and he's going to get the matchup, but that's a guy who scored the game-tying goal and almost scored the game-winner."
No. 7 seed Duke (14-5)
The Blue Devils get plenty of opportunities to score, courtesy of ranking third in Division I in faceoffs and ground balls. But when they do settle into offense, Duke is adept at finding teammates for scoring chances, ranking second in the country in assists per game (8.0).
Coach John Danowski said the coaches have emphasized to the players the necessity of playing cooperatively.
"When you have the ball, our first rule is to beat your man and score a goal," he said. "But when teams do slide, you have to play with your head up. We kind of told our guys, 'Look, we have no All-Americans on this team.' … If we're going to be successful, we're going to be successful because everyone can make a play."
Senior midfielder Josh Offit is not a starter, but that does not diminish his importance, according to Dixon.
"We talked to John Danowski, and he will tell you that he is the most consistent, steadiest player from February through now," Dixon said. "He just does all the little things, scores big goals, gets ground balls. Offit is a guy you always have to be aware of."
Every offense has the opportunity to improve its numbers with extra-man chances, and the Big Red is no different. The man-up offense is converting 39.2 percent of its opportunities for Cornell, which is the highest percentage among the four semifinalists.
Coach Ben DeLuca said the players understand the importance of man-up situations.
"You have to capitalize in situations, especially the further you go in the tournament," he said. "That could be the margin of victory, and I think our extra-man has done a very good job of developing over the year. … I just think that when you have a specialty situation like that and an opportunity to have a man advantage in a big game, a one-goal game, you have to be prepared to generate a high-percentage scoring opportunity and capitalize on that, and I think we've done a pretty good job of that so far."
Fifth-year senior attackman Rob Pannell will naturally draw everyone's attention, but Dixon said he would not overlook midfielder Connor Buczek.
"Buczek is a guy who is next in line in the lineage of Cornell midfielders," Dixon said. "You can look at Joe Boulukos and Max Seibald and Roy Lang, and Connor Buczek is the guy now. He's only a sophomore, and he's only going to get better."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun