Kessenich: One step from the men's lacrosse final four, these games could be classics

For The Baltimore Sun

After an outstanding opening weekend of games in the NCAA men's lacrosse tournament, one thing kept crossing my mind:

This weekend could be even better.

It's all about reaching the final four in Foxborough, Mass., and the eight teams left showed they have what it takes to be a champion.

And no one is ready to quit playing.

Let's take a glance at the action this weekend:

Duke vs. Ohio State, noon Saturday at Hofstra (ESPNU)

History lesson: Duke has won three NCAA titles this decade (2010, 2013 & 2014) for coach John Danowski. Ohio State is 0-3 all-time in the quarterfinals. This is their best chance to break through.

Stat that matters: Duke is the only team remaining that has a Top 10 scoring offense and defense.

What we learned from the first round: The Buckeyes defense packs a punch holding Loyola to four goals. Defender Ben Randall and goalie Tom Carey are All-American caliber. Duke annihilated Hopkins in Baltimore behind Justin Guterding's ten points.

X-factor: Ohio State's midfield defense will decide this game. When Duke midfielders have dodging success, their attack of Guterding, Jack Bruckner and Joey Manown accumulate major points.

Duke (13-4) will win if: The Blue Devils communicate through picks and screens on defense. The Buckeyes utilize two-man games to free up shooters Tre Leclaire and Eric Fannell. Defensive anticipation, communication and teamwork is critical.

Ohio State (14-4) will win if: It scores goals outside the half-field sets. This game projects to be low scoring and any transition, garbage or goals during specialty situations may be the difference.

Denver vs. Notre Dame, 2:30 p.m. Saturday at Hofstra (ESPNU)

History lesson: Denver won the championship in 2015 for Coach Bill Tierney, the game's most accomplished leader. Notre Dame has been knocking on the door and were runner-ups in 2010 and 2014 for coach Kevin Corrigan. They've never won the title.

Stat that matters: Denver and Trevor Baptiste lead the nation in face-off winning percentage at 72 percent. The Pios defeated Notre Dame 11-10 at the buzzer on March 12.

What we learned from the first round: When Denver got comfortable in the third quarter against Air Force on offense, the ball movement was dizzying, resulting in dunks and lay ups. The Irish advanced behind Brendan Collins and Brendan Gleason, running away from Marquette.

X-factor: The Irish utilize a ten man ride, or full court press that puts pressure on the clearing team. It causes chaos and can lead to turnovers and scoring chances.

Denver (12-3) will win if: Its defense can tighten the screws. The unit ranks No. 17 in scoring defense but has hid behind a dominating possession advantage. Too often DU defenders make poor slide and recovery decisions.

Notre Dame (9-5) will win if: It is willing to grind on defense. Denver could dominate the time of possession and remain patient spinning the rock in circles. Notre Dame has to dig deep and defend long possessions when tired.

Towson vs. Syracuse, noon at Delaware (ESPN2)

History lesson: Syracuse has won 11 titles but this senior class hasn't been to championship weekend. Towson is in the quarterfinals for the second consecutive year. They played for a NCAA championship in 1991 and appeared in the semis in 2001.

Stat that matters: Towson ranks No. 46 in scoring offense and shoots just 25 percent. Syracuse has won nine one-goal games in 2017 for coach John Desko.

What we learned from the first round: Towson and Syracuse are mentally tough having been tested into the fourth quarter and answering the bell in late rounds. When you consider the CAA tournament, Towson and coach Shawn Nadelen has won three straight elimination games.

X-factor: Towson's exceptional midfield defense of Tyler Mayes, Jack Adams and Zach Goodrich will attempt to squeeze Orange midfielders Sergio Salcido and Nick Mariano, the nation's best duo. The Tigers own a top five scoring defense.

Towson (11-4) will win if: It stays true to its blue-collar personality and gets useful production from the bench while committing to the hustle plays. The Orange have been skating on thin ice all year long but know how to finish. Tigers must play the full 60 minutes, not a second less.

Syracuse (13-2) will win if: It plays fundamentally sound defense and not allow any freebies. Taking custody of Towson offensive leader Ryan Drenner is job number one, and denying shooter Joe Seider is essential.

Albany vs. Maryland, 230 p.m. at Delaware (ESPN2)

History lesson: Albany has never played in the semifinals, let alone win a title. Maryland under coach John Tillman, has qualified for championship weekend five of the last six years. The Terps haven't won the NCAA title since 1975, going 0-9 in championship games since. Maryland defeated Albany 12-11 this season on April 12.

Stat that matters: Albany's analytics are spectacular. They lead the country in scoring offense, assists per game, man down defense, and are second in face-off winning percentage.

What we learned from the first round: Who can play for all 60 minutes? Great Danes scored 14 goals against North Carolina dominating the first half. The Heels countered with nine straight third quarter goals to make it a game. Meanwhile Maryland led Bryant 13-5 and got sloppy surrendering five straight goals late.

X-factor: This game exudes star power with Albany's Connor Fields and Terp Matt Rambo, a pair of Tewaaraton finalists. Rambo has scored at least five points in each of his last five NCAA tournament games.

Albany (15-2) will win if: It scores in transition and keep the ball hot in its half-field offensive sets, while moving and cutting without it.

Maryland (13-3) will win if: Faceoff men Austin Henningsen, Jon Garino, and the wingers all do their jobs. Albany is accustomed to a possession advantage. The Terps may shred Albany's defense in settled sets with Rambo, Colin Heacock, Jared Bernhardt, Connor Kelly and Tim Rotanz.

Quint Kessenich covers college sports for ESPN and writes weekly for The Baltimore Sun during lacrosse season. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/QKessenich.

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