ESPN analyst and former Syracuse All-American midfielder Paul Carcaterra witnessed top-ranked Syracuse's 7-5 decision against Princeton on Saturday. Carcaterra, who will help provide commentary when No. 4 Johns Hopkins visits No. 6 Maryland on Saturday night, offered his perspective on Syracuse's Achilles heel, a league outside of the Atlantic Coast Conference that could send three teams to the NCAA tournament, and a surprising destination for a first-round game in the NCAA tournament.
Barring an upset, No. 1 Syracuse (9-0) and No. 2 Notre Dame (8-0) are on pace to meet on April 30 in a battle of the unbeatens. Which team will remain that way?
It's tough to say because Syracuse defensively and in the goal has been so strong. Defensively, I think they're so sound, and they can win multiple ways. They can win by putting up some big numbers, but they can also win a low-scoring game when you think about their wins over Hopkins and Villanova, scoring five goals, which is not typical Syracuse fashion. The one thing that I think is still a question mark for Syracuse is their offensive consistency. They haven't put up big numbers on a consistent basis, and I think they're really lacking an offensive identity in terms of who they are. You have tremendous crease attackman in [senior] Stephen Keogh, who has the potential to score 60 goals if the offense is clicking properly. But he's not getting as many opportunities as you'd like to see if you're a Syracuse fan because of the way they're lacking a dodging presence. I think that hurts Keogh's touches, and it hurts some of these outside shooters who really aren't getting their shots. Look at a guy like [senior midfielder] Josh Amidon who is a great lefty outside shooter, and how many outside lefty shots has he taken? Not many because the defense isn't breaking down and giving him those opportunities. So that's the big question mark with Syracuse, and unless they start clicking offensively, Notre Dame can certainly go to the Dome and beat them. I look at Notre Dame as a team that you questioned in the beginning of the year because of their attack, but their attack is actually playing quite well. They have a freshman in Westy Hopkins who has been playing outstanding and has given them a dodging presence. They're a stronger offensive group this year. They were a lockdown defensive group last year, and they still have that. And they're so well-coached and trained that now you have to score goals to beat them. In the past, you didn't have to score a ton of goals to beat Notre Dame, but you have to score 10 goals to beat them now.
Critics have questioned Syracuse's performance in those 5-4 wins against Johns Hopkins and Villanova and in the 7-5 victory over Princeton on Saturday. Is that a case of the Orange playing down to the level of its opponents or having the will to persevere?
I think it's a situation where they stay calm, relaxed and poised because of their senior leadership. They have seven senior, returning All Americans and they're kids who have won two national titles and been in tight games., so they stay the course during these games, and I think they do persevere and are able to find seams and flaws late in the games and exploit them. With that said, I don't think you can consistently play like this week in and week out without stubbing your toe. I think things have to change on the offensive end to continue to stay unbeaten and win a national title. And they certainly have the potential to do that. It's just that you can't win like that week after week after week. You can have a few of those games, but when you have five or six or eight of these games, someone's going to catch you.
Do you buy into a theory that it's better to lose in the regular season now rather than carry the burden of trying to complete a perfect season in the NCAA tournament?
No, not at all. I'm not one to ever say that a loss is a good thing. You play to win the game, so if you lose, that's not a good thing. There have been many situations where teams have run the table and gone undefeated to win a national title. And there are teams that lose and grow from those losses and stay hungry, but I think with the Syracuse situation, the motivation to continue to win is certainly there. They have the leadership. This was a team that was upset in the playoffs last year, so that has stayed in their minds. So I don't think losing a game ever benefits. You don't become a better team by losing a game. You might get motivated or learn from them, but you can learn from wins as well.
Do you think the Big East will get three at-large bids?
I do. You look at Syracuse and Notre Dame and they're pretty much locks to go into the tournament. And now you have an upstart Villanova team that can play with anybody in the country. And Georgetown is the best team with a bad record in the country. They really can play with anyone. If you look at some of their opponents, they played Syracuse, Duke and Notre Dame so tight. I don't think their season is over yet. They've got a lot of lacrosse to play. But I definitely think that the Big East is going to get three.
What was the most surprising result of the weekend?
Denver-Duke. Duke looked great for about five weeks in March and early April. They really pulled things together. I thought they had so many holes when I watched them down in Florida in late February and from that point on, they clicked. After the Penn loss, they found themselves offensively. They have freshmen – guys like Jordan Wolf and Christian Walsh – playing like upperclassmen and just clicking on all cylinders and had a defense that was fast and great in transition. I wasn't impressed with the way they played against Syracuse last week. I thought they were completely outplayed. The score didn't really indicate the type of game it was. It was a six- or seven-goal difference late in the second half. So I was looking for them to rebound and get back to old form, but it looked like they struggled against Denver.
What does the win say about Denver?
They have two losses – to Syracuse and Notre Dame, the Nos. 1 and 2 teams in the country. I think Bill Tierney has had these kids buy into their defensive system. Offensively, I look at them as a different team from those of his Princeton years. They play differently. They play a little bit more transition, a little more freelance on offense. This is a team that can really sneak up on a squad, sand I look at them as a team that you really don't want to play in the first round of the playoffs. Denver is a squad that has two outstanding attackmen in [juniors Alex] Demopoulos and [Mark] Matthews, and their defense is tight, and they're getting great goaltending from the freshman, Jamie Faus. He's outstanding. So this is a team that is built for now and the future because they are young.
If Denver repeats as the Eastern College Athletic Conference champion, will the Pioneers play host to a first-round game in the NCAA tournament?
I think they'll get a home game, and I think that'll be great for lacrosse. Denver's a huge lacrosse town now, so it'd be good for Denver to get a home game. Depending on how Duke fares in the ACC tournament, Denver has a legitimate chance at being – at the bare minimum – a No. 5 seed. Beating a Duke team that could have some solid wins down the stretch, that could be interesting.
No. 7 Virginia's 11-10 overtime decision against No. 5 North Carolina will have more of an impact for which side?
I thought it was a bigger game for Virginia because I felt like to a certain extent that the wheels were falling off of the bus for the Cavaliers. Getting that ACC win against a really good North Carolina team probably gave that team a sense of being back and being able to compete. They had a lead diminish down the stretch. They were up 10-7 and then North Carolina fought back. It could have been catastrophic for the Cavaliers if they had lost that game based on the way that fourth quarter played out. Winning that game was huge for that program because I think from a morale standpoint, things weren't great for the Cavaliers. North Carolina's young and talented and still trying to find an identity where they can kind of bounce back from that loss more than Virginia.
With No. 8 Cornell two games ahead of its opponents in the Ivy League, would it be fair to say that the conference's automatic qualifier runs through the Big Red?
I do because they've beaten some of the up-and-coming teams like Yale and Penn. Those are two teams that people were really starting to eyeball as title contenders. With that said, I think they'll have a tough time in their conference tournament, but this is only the second year of the conference tournament. I think they'll be tested, but they'll go into that weekend as a strong favorite.
Is there a favorite to emerge from the Colonial Athletic Association?
This conference is without a doubt the toughest to get a feel for in terms of the top two or three teams. This is the cloudiest picture with regard to all of the conferences. You know what you're getting in the Ivy. I think people think that Hofstra is the best team on paper, but they have some question marks. Coming into the season, people thought this was a team that could make a Final Four run, which they still can, but they've been very inconsistent. I think people thought they would have an offense that is great, but they lost to Delaware in a game where they put up six goals and they beat St. John's by putting up eight. To me, Hofstra's probably the best team, but I can't call them the clear-cut favorite in that conference.
What about the Patriot League?
One team I'm really impressed with from the Patriot League is Colgate. Colgate's a team where I didn't think they would be good at all this year. But they've out together some nice wins. They're 8-3. They're the quietest 8-3 team in the country. They beat Army last week by two goals, which I thought was a huge W for them. It's a team that continues to surprise people. They have a kid who is the biggest under-the-radar player in the country, [sophomore midfielder] Peter Baum. I saw him two years ago play at the Under Armour All-American Game, and he was the best player on the field. He is a top-flight offensive player, and he's doing it with serious defensive pressure, too. When you play Colgate, you're saying, 'Stop Peter Baum,' and he still has 29 goals right now.
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