Is there a clear-cut favorite for the 2014 NCAA championship?
Here come the homer cries. I went to Syracuse and very rarely have I picked them to win the national title. But they have a tremendous amount of talent in terms of depth offensively. I think they have the most players that can hurt you in many different ways. They’re interchangeable parts where you have six guys that can play attack or midfield, can throw three lines of midfield at you, and they can do it with different looks – guys inverting as midfielders, great passers, high IQ guys in [sophomore attackman Dylan] Donohue and [junior attackman Kevin] Rice. They have a newcomer in [junior attackman] Randy Staats. I’ve watched tape on this kid and his skills are ridiculous. He’s a transfer from Onondaga Community College. You could argue that his skills are right up there with [Albany junior attackman] Lyle Thompson’s, and I know that sounds crazy. So you have a star in him and two-way midfielders. The big question for Syracuse though is winning faceoffs. For the past five or six years, they have been borderline dreadful at the X. the lacrosse world knows that if you’re not winning faceoffs at this point in time in lacrosse where coaches are very systematic and can exploit that in terms of ball control and keeping it out of your offense’s hands, they cannot win the national title if they face off at the level that they have in the past. They have to improve, but I think from a talent standpoint, this might be their deepest team in years. I’m not saying this is their most talented team, but I don’t remember a team this deep since the 2000 national championship team that was extraordinarily deep. They’re a team that I think you need to really watch. Duke has their ends of the field covered with their attack. [Senior] Jordan Wolf is a great dodger, [senior] Josh Dionne is a great finisher, and [sophomore Case] Matheis is a player that can play many roles. Their defense is stacked with big, long, fast, strong defenders. I just worry about their midfield. They lost a lot of midfield production. [Sophomores] Myles Jones and Deemer Class were role players last year and this year, they need to be stars for the team to emerge. I always like Denver. Bill Tierney has done a fantastic job making that program not just a once-every-few-years relevant team. They’re going to be in the mix every single year as long as Tierney and [offensive coordinator] Matt Brown are there. They’re that good, and I love their players. They have a great freshman in [attackman] Zach Miller who is from Canada. He’s played a lot of box lacrosse, and his skill set is fantastic. [Senior] Jeremy Noble is a solid two-way midfielder. Carolina is as talented as they’ve been. It’s been 21 years since they’ve been to a Final Four, and I think the talent is there. [Junior attackman] Joey Sankey is going to have to go from a good, game-breaking type of player who can make a defender crazy to a quarterback who can distribute the ball and make sure that all of those stars get it. And then there’s Albany that is a great story in lacrosse. You can’t forget about what they did last year in terms of their offense. I think all but 12 percent of their scoring is back. They’re scary to watch. The Thompsons are must-see TV. I just think it’s just a fantastic story what Scott Marr has done up in Albany. There’s just so much parity every year. I know I say that every year, and it sounds redundant, but look at the Marylands of the world, Loyola, Yale, Virginia, all these teams could be in the mix if they just plug one or two spots. Virginia needs a feeder. Maryland has to have freshmen that can play like stars right away because they lost a ton on offense.
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Is there a team whose preseason ranking is too high? And is there a team whose ranking is too low?
I think Albany is a team that could be ranked higher. I’ve seen them in some polls where they’re not even ranked in the top 10. I think their attack is the top attack in the country. I don’t think it’s even close in terms of skill set. Lyle Thompson is the best player in college lacrosse. This guy is a once-in-a-decade type talent, and we get to watch him for two more years. He’s flanked by his brother [senior Miles] and cousin [senior Ty]. So that offense is all back, and if they can button some things down defensively and win some faceoffs, Scott Marr is going to roll the ball out and play a fast-paced, chaotic brand of lacrosse that is fun to watch and fun to play and it causes problems for the opposition because it’s a pace that teams don’t see week in and week out. That’s a team that needs a little more respect. A team that you might sell, for Notre Dame to compete at a top five level, their midfield needs to improve. If you look at their statistics shooting-wise over the last couple of years, they’ve struggled at the midfield. I like their attack with [sophomore] Matt Kavanagh. Defensively over the last decade, they’ve been as good as anyone. The goalie, [junior] Conor Kelly, is a stud who is replacing John Kemp. The midfield for Notre Dame will dictate their success this year.
Can Cornell recover after the graduation of 2013 Tewaaraton Award winner Rob Pannell and the dismissal of head coach Ben DeLuca?
Ben DeLuca is a great lacrosse coach, a man with integrity, and if I was an athletic director with an opening, I would without question have Ben DeLuca as a finalist for the position. That said, even if Ben DeLuca had been back at Cornell, they would’ve had their hands full. Losing not only Rob Pannell, but also losing [attackman] Steve Mock, two or three great defenders, their goalie. It was a senior class that was built toward making a run at the national title. They came up a little short, and that’s a team now that has a ton of questions. The only proven guys on that team are [junior] attackman Matt Donovan and [junior] midfielder Connor Buczek. Outside of those two guys, there are a ton of questions in Ithaca. I think it hurts recruiting – the instability and the lack of certainty in terms of whether Matt Kerwick can be the next coach. If you’re a high school prospect and you’re getting recruited by Cornell and there is an interim label next to the head coach’s name, what does that tell you? Is he staying or is he going? Kerwick’s a really good coach. If Cornell is smart, they’ll keep him and give some stability. I like his offensive game planning, but this certainly has set the program back. It’s DeLuca’s departure, it’s all of the seniors who were mainstays for three to four years and the interim tag on Matt Kerwick. If you’re a prospect, how do you take that next step? As tough as it is for Cornell right now, where you could really see it hurting is two or three years down the road when those prospects that they’re missing out on are going elsewhere.
Johns Hopkins’ streak of 41 consecutive appearances in the NCAA tournament ended last May. Can the Blue Jays start a new run this season or will they extend a streak of a different kind?
Hopkins missed the playoffs last year with some great guys like [defenseman] Tucker Durkin, [midfielders] John Ranagan and John Greeley, [goalkeeper] Pierce Bassett – guys who played and started for four years and were All Americans. There is a lot of unknown when it comes to assessing the ability of this team at Homewood Field and I say that because they have recruited kids that haven’t had an opportunity to play, and the opportunity is now because of all those seniors who left. So on paper, it’s an easy team to sell. If you look at Johns Hopkins and you look at what they bring back, they struggled last year, and it’s a very easy team to sell. But I will say that Coach [Dave] Pietramala, Coach [Bill] Dwan and Coach [Bobby] Benson have always done a great job of developing talent, and this could be one of those teams where there’s a lot of selfless individuals. They’re not all of a sudden getting players at Hopkins. All of those kids were really good high school lacrosse players, but now they have an opportunity. I think it’s a team that in a few weeks, we can see what their identity is. The one thing that I’d be fearful offensively is a true playmaker from a dodging standpoint. I think [junior attackman] Wells Stanwick is a great lacrosse player, but I just look at that offense and I don’t know if there’s a guy you can give the ball to that can separate and create offense on a consistent basis. Is it [senior midfielder] Rob Guida? Rob Guida did a really nice job when John Ranagan has the pole or all the attention was on other players. But now Rob Guida has a huge X on his back, and teams are going to identify him as the major playmaker of that offense. So I think a lot hinges on whether Rob Guida can be a star. If Rob Guida can be a dodging star, that will allow guys like Wells Stanwick and [sophomore attackman] Ryan Brown and [senior attackman Brandon] Benn to play a different kind of role. Not to put too much pressure on Guida, but Guida has to play like a first-team All American for Hopkins to be in the mix. They’ve always done a pretty good job of finding ways to win faceoffs. Defensively, check, check, check with Pietramala. [Senior Eric] Schneider, I’ve seen him play in the goal, and he’s going to do a fine job. There were times people thought he might take Bassett’s job last year. So I think that end of the field is taken care of. But it all comes down to Rob Guida.