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Mike Preston: The real test is yet to come for Maryland men’s lacrosse | COMMENTARY

Maryland men’s lacrosse coach John Tillman is taking the right approach. While a lot of fans are praising his No. 3 ranked and unbeaten Terps, Tillman simply says, “let’s wait and see.”

He knows the layout and the state of college lacrosse these days.

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Maryland (4-0) is good enough to win in the Big Ten Conference, but the Atlantic Coast Conference seems to have the super teams.

“Honestly, we’re almost half through this thing, and to get the first four are huge,” Tillman said of the Terps’ schedule, which includes playing each conference team twice because of the coronavirus pandemic. “But knowing that three of those games were at home, that means we got a lot of work to do and going on the road is a lot harder.”

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The quality of play in the Big Ten has dropped off this season. Besides the Terps, the only other Big Ten team ranked in the top 10 is Rutgers (3-1), which is No. 6.

No. 17 Penn State (1-3), one of the conference’s better teams in recent years, has been hit hard by COVID. No. 15 Johns Hopkins (2-2) has a first-year coach in Peter Milliman, and the Blue Jays play like a team in transition. Michigan (0-4) looks like a team about to get its coach fired at the end of the season.

Meanwhile, the ACC has five teams ranked in the top 10, with North Carolina (7-0) at No. 1, Duke (8-0) at No. 2, Syracuse (3-1) at No. 5, Notre Dame (2-0) at No. 8 and Virginia (5-2) at No. 9.

Polls are often political in nature, but the top two teams are legitimate. North Carolina and Duke have gotten immediate help from players in the transfer portal, and they’ve looked playoff ready from the beginning of the season.

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All five of the ACC’s top teams are big, strong, fast and physical. Carolina is averaging 18.5 goals per game while Duke is at 17.25. Neither team plays good defense, but they don’t have to because it’s going to take 20 goals to beat them.

In the past, Virginia, North Carolina and possibly even Notre Dame would have been on the Terps’ schedule because of their former ACC ties, but that won’t happen in 2021.

So, the best teams in the ACC are beating up on each other in games with playoff intensity while Maryland is usually getting a good half or three quarters of competition from Big Ten opponents before winning big. Maybe that will be a factor in the postseason.

It’s easy to like Maryland. Duke has one of the better offensive players in the country in attackman Michael Sowers (18 goals, 26 assists) and the Tar Heels have attackman Chris Gray (28, 17). Maryland, though, has senior attackman Jared Bernhardt (16, 8), who is pacing an offense averaging 17.5 goals.

Bernhardt is a complete player who can shoot, pass, draw double teams and impose his will in most games. He isn’t afraid to get dirty because he rides as hard any player in the game.

Fellow attackmen Daniel Maltz (16, 4) and Logan Wisnauskas (10, 12) play off Bernhardt on both the wings and the crease. But the unsung hero of this team might be former Hopkins offensive coordinator Bobby Benson, who was hired by the Terps in the offseason. He has helped Maryland with its off-ball movement, and it clearly shows this season.

The Terps can beat a team in many ways. They are relentless and grind down the opposition with depth and versatility. Against Rutgers on Saturday, they allowed their midfielders to play on attack.

Maryland’s midfielders are virtually interchangeable on offense. Bubba Fairman, Anthony DeMaio and Kyle Long run with the first team, while Eric Malever, Griffin Brown and Chase Cope play with the second. Eric Holden and Jack Koras have had substantial playing time as well.

The defense was questionable at the beginning of the season, but so far short-stick defensive midfielders Roman Puglise, Jake Higgins and Alex Smith have been consistent, along with goalie Logan McNaney and defensemen Matt Rahill, Brett Makar and Nick Grill. The group is fast, small, and athletic and can fill space quickly, but the Terps will have trouble matching up with bigger teams in the ACC.

Again, it goes back to the ACC.

In three of their four victories, the Terps played tight games before simply wearing down Penn State, Hopkins and Rutgers in the second half. At least the Scarlet Knights didn’t melt down until the final quarter.

Going into the playoffs, you’d like to see Maryland more battle tested, and right now, Tillman probably feels the same way. But the schedule is the result of the pandemic, not the Terps taking the easy way out.

But only the postseason will tell if Maryland has made the leap from good to great.

NO. 3 MARYLAND@NO. 14 OHIO STATE

Saturday, noon

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