ESPN analyst and former Syracuse All-American midfielder Paul Carcaterra provided analysis of the NCAA tournament quarterfinals from the sports network's studio. Reprising that role for this weekend's semifinals and final, Carcaterra broke down the keys for each of the semifinalists, pontificated on whether one of the team is the favorite, and didn't budge on his initial assessment of the Tewaaraton Award winner – with one large caveat.
So let's break down each of the semifinalists in terms of what they will need to be successful this weekend. Let's begin with No. 5 seed Duke.
I think for Duke, it's all about getting [freshman attackman] Jordan Wolf into the action early. He's only a freshman, but I think that if he's dodging well and he's confident, he'll open up a bunch of lanes for the midfielders. [Redshirt junior] Justin Turri, [junior] Robert Rotanz and [sophomore] David Lawson are all capable scorers, and I think they're more effective off the dodge when Wolf is creating and causing problems in the defense. That's certainly a key. And then another key for Duke is [senior long-stick midfielder] C.J. Costabile. If he has a great game, there's a good chance that Duke will win. I say that because not only does he face off and he would be going against [Maryland sophomore] Curtis Holmes, who has been fabulous all season long, but he plays the wings as well. So if he's not at the draw, he's going to be on the wing, and he'll have to be huge on those 50-50 ground-ball situations.
What about Denver?
They're a tough team to scout. Going into Hopkins, I think everyone thought that if you stop [junior attackmen] Mark Matthews and Alex Demopoulos, you were going to win the game. But they showed that they have a midfield that is completely capable of putting up big numbers and creating matchup problems. That is a balanced, balanced offense. So if that midfield gets going and makes its presence felt early, you're going to see Matthews and Demopoulos have great one-on-one matchups, and I think that's key. We've seen their attack light it up and now we're seeing their midfield take over games. I think that's where the Hopkins game was won last week – at the midfield. They just dominated the short-stick defensive midfield of Johns Hopkins. Hopkins didn't want to slide early because they didn't want to leave guys like Matthews and Demopoulos open, and Denver made them pay. So I think a balanced offense would be really big for Denver. I think another key would their ability to adjust to a zone defense. If Virginia goes zone, [the Pioneers] are going to have to get into their offensive set and move the ball and almost play like they do on their extra-man [unit].
How about Virginia?
For Virginia, I think it's their quick-strike offense. That's what beat Cornell. They had great possessions, but they were quick ones. They found opportunities right away against Cornell and never really allowed Cornell to get into their base defense, and they struck pretty quick. I love their transition game. When guys like [sophomore midfielders Chris] LaPierre and Blake Riley are getting into the mix, they're tough to stop because they put so much pressure on the middle of the field, and with guys like [junior attackmen] Steele Stanwick and Chris Bocklet, they can strike fast. I don't think Virginia wants to let Denver get into their base defense too much. I think they want to attack right away because when they attack right away, they usually go through Stanwick, and he's been masterful in the playoffs thus far.
I'm not a guy that likes to say that the keys are faceoffs and goaltending. Those are obvious. To me, if you're getting solid goaltending and you're winning the majority of the draws, of course those are keys to the game. But when you have a faceoff kid like [sophomore] Curtis Holmes, to me, that takes it to another level. They won 11-of-14 faceoffs against Syracuse, and they completely controlled time of possession. Syracuse was never able to get into sync offensively because they coupled great faceoff play with very patient possessions, and I think if they do that against Duke, it's going to be trouble. It's the most frustrating thing for an offensive team to try to make plays after not having the ball for a long period of time because people get antsy and then they try to do things that are uncharacteristic. It just puts them in a very difficult situation offensively. People can argue all they want about stall warnings. This is the playoffs. You do whatever you can to advance. I don't fault [Terps coach] John Tillman one bit for that game plan because he's playing within the rules of the game. When you have Curtis Holmes and you're adding on these valuable and patient possessions, it's very, very difficult to counter that. If Holmes is winning at the rate he's been winning in the playoffs, I don't see anyone really blowing them out. Maryland is in every single ball game, down to the wire, and they're favored if he's playing at that rate.
Can you call any of the semifinalists a favorite?
It's almost borderline ridiculous. I've looked at all four teams, and I can honestly say that I can see Denver winning the national championship. I can see Duke winning the national championship. I can see Maryland winning the national championship. I can see Virginia winning the national championship. It's so even, and I don't remember a Final Four where anyone can really win. There was always that team that had a nice run but was never really a threat to win it all, and we have four teams here that, honestly, I'd be lying to you if I told you that I think I know who's going to win this national championship. And it's a great thing because it makes the Final Four so interesting.
What's the significance on the sport if Denver wins the title?
It just tells you that the game is growing. To me, the location of the school is secondary to the fact that they're winning with kids from Canada, from Kentucky, from all over the place. That's the bigger picture to me. They're not littered with kids from Denver. It's more of a team that recruits with a wide scope, and it's a testament to the game's overall growth. That's the bigger issue rather than they're playing in the western part of the country. I think if Denver wins the championship, it's also huge for the sport because it's a team that's not one of the big dogs. It's not Hopkins, Syracuse or an ACC school. In addition to Princeton, that's been the ticket for the last 33 years. Off the top of my head, Princeton, Syracuse, Hopkins and the ACC schools have won every championship since Cornell in the '70s. So that, to me, is even bigger than the fact that they're playing in the western part of the country. It's a new team that is emerging, and it shows tremendous opportunity and optimism for those types of schools. A school like Villanova which lost to Denver by a few goals and had a great year can be in the mix down the road. You better watch out if Michigan gets rolling because they're going to recruit nationally, too. Schools that have a mindset of recruiting nationally are going to benefit more and more.
Is Cornell junior attackman Rob Pannell still your leading candidate to win the Tewaaraton Award?
Yeah, you've got to look at the body of work. A lot of people like Steele Stanwick. Look, if Steele Stanwick propels Virginia to the national championship, then you have a serious argument and you'd probably have to give it to Stanwick because of what Virginia has gone through. That's what I like about the Tewaaraton. The Tewaaraton is very championship-heavy. If you look at the guys who have won it in the past, how many of them played on Monday? I think they all were playing on Monday or definitely in the Final Four. … Steele Stanwick has taken it to a different level where this team was in disarray and people thought they were done a few weeks ago. And here he is, leading his squad and doing a terrific job of being the guy who takes over games. So if they win a championship and he continues to play the way he's been playing, you have to give it to Steele Stanwick. With all that said though, at this stage and before Stanwick goes on this tear, it's definitely Pannell's. He was the guy that we were saying two weeks ago, "Mail him the trophy." So now his team loses and he doesn't get the Tewaaraton? He's got 89 points, he's dominated the competition, no one has gotten the upper hand on him from a matchup standpoint. He's not playing with first-team All Americans. He's making role players great scorers. So he's my frontrunner still. The only way that I can see Pannell not winning the Tewaaraton is if Virginia wins the championship and Stanwick plays lights out like he has been.