Reigning national champion Duke owns a slight 4-3 edge in its series with Denver, but this is the first time the teams will meet in the NCAA tournament. The Pioneers are making their third Final Four appearance in four years, while the Blue Devils earned a spot in the national semifinals for the eighth consecutive season and 10th time in program history.
Fifth-seeded Denver (16-2) is the hottest team in the postseason, having won 13 consecutive games since a 12-10 loss to Penn on March 1. But the team is seeking its first trip to the NCAA title game. The Pioneers’ starting midfield includes junior Erik Adamson (38 goals and nine assists) and freshman Tyler Pace (22, 9), but senior Jeremy Noble is the do-it-all playmaker with a team-high 31 assists, 43 points and 50 ground balls.
Top-seeded Duke (15-3) has made a two-game losing streak to Maryland and Duke in March a distant memory by going 11-1 since. The team has a chance to become the first repeat champion since Syracuse won back-to-back titles in 2008 and 2009. Sophomore goalkeeper Luke Aaron (9.82 goals-against average and .518 save percentage) is slated to make his 17th start of the season, but junior Kyle Turri (8.63 goals-against average and .453 save percentage) could be tabbed to play if Aaron falters.
Here are a few factors that could play a role in the outcome at M&T Bank Stadium on Saturday at 1 p.m.
1) Duke’s offense. The Blue Devils have torched their way through the postseason, averaging a tournament-high 19.5 goals in two contests. The loss of senior attackman Josh Dionne (49, 7) to a right knee injury may hurt, but the offense has struck a balance between an attack that has combined for 101 goals and 60 assists and a midfield that has totaled 86 goals and 73 assists. Denver already got a taste of Duke’s offense in a 14-10 loss to the Blue Devils on Feb. 15.
“In one regard, we’re daunted by the challenge of playing Duke, and in another regard, we’re at least glad that it’s somebody we know,” Pioneers coach Bill Tierney said. “We’ve played Duke in each of the last four seasons, we know who they are. … But we knew the task at hand – certainly a Tewaaraton [Award] finalist [in Wolf] and the way that midfield is playing and if anybody overlooks the other two attackmen or the second midfield, you’re going to be in deep, deep trouble. At this time of the year, you do what you do and you try to do it a little bit better when it comes to the semifinals or final.”
2) Denver’s goalie rotation. As prolific as Duke’s offense has been, the Pioneers’ defense has been suffocating, allowing a tournament-low 5.5 goals per game. The unit likes to pack the middle and dare opponents to score from the perimeter, and the team has relied on a goalie rotation of junior Ryan LaPlante (8.38 goals-against average and .579 save percentage) and senior Jamie Faus (7.93 goals-against average and .547 save percentage). LaPlante has made 15 starts, and Faus has played in the second half, which has thrown off opposing shooters.
“One’s a lefty, one’s a righty,” Blue Devils coach John Danowski said. “But we never talk about goalies. I think it makes you crazy. Good shots are good shots. Good shots go, and sometimes they don’t. You can’t think too much. You’ve got to be able to play right and let the ball go. If you start thinking too much or change your style because of who’s in the goal, probably that’s going to be an advantage to the goaltender.”
3) Faceoffs. After propelling Duke to last year’s NCAA title and getting named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, senior Brendan Fowler is considered the game’s top faceoff specialist even if his .595 percentage (273-of-459) ranks just 13th in Division I. Denver sophomore Chris Hampton (.532 percentage on 150-of-282) would seem to be at a disadvantage, but he outdueled Drexel junior Nick Saputo (.620 percentage on 255-of-411) by winning 16-of-23 draws in the Pioneers’ 15-6 rout in the quarterfinals.
“I think Denver needs to get into an offensive rhythm, which is not tough but they’re going to need the ball to do that,” ESPN analyst Mark Dixon said. “And in order for Duke to disrupt the Denver offense, they’re going to have to win faceoffs, and they’ve got Fowler. Chris Hampton has been great lately, but if you’re Duke, you have to win faceoffs. You can’t foul Denver because they will dice you up on the extra-man. If you’re Denver, you need those extra possessions to get into your offensive rhythm.”Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun