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Mike Preston

Mike Preston: It’s title or bust — again — for coach John Tillman and No. 1 Maryland men’s lacrosse | COMMENTARY

After No. 1 Maryland men’s lacrosse beat No. 4 Rutgers by eight goals Sunday night, there were the obvious questions: Who can knock off the Terps and how do they lose in the national championship game?

The same questions have been asked for decades, but maybe with more emphasis in the past 11 years since John Tillman became the Terps coach.

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Since the NCAA Division I Tournament began in 1971, Maryland has finished as the runner-up 12 times. Since Tillman took over in 2011, the Terps have finished second five times and won the championship in 2017.

So, the questions are fair.

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Tillman is one of the top coaches in this modern era of the sport, but his teams have struggled in the big game. In some cases, his Terps just ran into superior teams, like Loyola Maryland in 2012 and Denver in 2015.

There were other times when Maryland got upset. They fell to North Carolina, 14-13, in the 2016 title game and then Virginia, 17-16, in a thriller last season, a game in which the Terps entered unbeaten.

In Maryland’s case, there is always something, but this might be the best Terps team yet under Tillman.

Unbeaten Maryland (10-0) isn’t just beating everybody; they are embarrassing the opposition. Maryland has huge advantages in goals (183-96), assists (107-47), shots (457-330) and ground balls (363-277).

A year ago, Tillman thought his team was at a disadvantage by being limited to Big Ten Conference opponents because of coronavirus concerns. But this year the Terps have beaten nonconference teams such as Princeton, Syracuse and Notre Dame, and they’ve crushed both Loyola Maryland and defending national champion Virginia by double digits.

Sunday, the Terps did something that few teams can do against the Scarlet Knights: They basically ran them into exhaustion.

Who’s next?

“They’re so deep and talented, they don’t have any flaws,” Rutgers coach Brian Brecht said of the Terps. “Their faceoff game is outstanding, their transition between the lines is good, their poles are good, their defense is good, their attack is very unselfish and machine-like.

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“They make you pay when you slide, they make you pay when you don’t slide, they make you pay when you hold the ball too long, they make you pay if you help out. We got exposed.”

Maryland has dominated a lot of teams. At the beginning of the season, lacrosse fans were wondering if Virginia could possibly three-peat. No one is talking about the Cavaliers anymore.

It’s Maryland.

And the Terps are so deep and interchangeable. They’ve got attackmen who can double as midfielders and midfielders who play attack.

For the sake of clarity, the starting attack consists of Logan Wisnauskas (27 goals, 24 assists), Keegan Khan (16 goals, 6 assists) and Eric Malever (14 goals, 9 assists).

A year ago, the Terps had attackman Jared Bernhardt as their top offensive threat, and at times he took over games. Wisnauskas can disappear during games but then blow up the opposition with two or three goals within minutes.

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The chemistry works well for Maryland.

“I think having a guy like Jared, there is a guy that is a pretty special player in so many different ways,” Tillman said. “He allowed us, when push came to shove and even watching the second Rutgers game last year up there, I felt like at times — we were down 4-1 in that game, we were kind of struggling — and Jared kind of hit a couple plays, just one-on-one matchups and scored. As I’m watching that game, I was like, ‘That’s not going to happen this year.’

“So, we’re going to have to make sure that it’s going to be spread out. But it’s kind of what we wanted. And I think these guys are so selfless that it doesn’t really matter. Game to game, quarter to quarter, somebody may get hot, and they’re happy for each other.”

The assist total tells an important story. Of their 183 goals this season, 107 have been assisted. That means that the Terps are spreading the ball around, but it also shows they have a lot of weapons and depth.

The first midfield consists of Jonathan Donville, (22 goals, 6 assists), Anthony DeMaio (11 goals, 10 assists) and the speedy Kyle long (10 goals, 11 assists). But Maryland can bring Owen Murphy, Jack Brennan and Jack Koros off the bench and not miss a beat.

“The more we move off-ball and the more we move it, the harder it is for teams just to kind of line up and defend us because we’re constantly moving people in and out. But it does take that trust and self-discipline,” Tillman said.

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Not to be outdone, the Terps also play outstanding defense. Alex Smith and Roman Puglise lead the short-stick midfielders, and Maryland also has two takeaway defenders in Ajax Zappitello and Brett Makar. Most teams only have one.

The thing that makes this group so special is that Maryland can double team hard and slide so quickly that it creates good angles for goalie Logan McNaney, who has a .533 save percentage this season.

Brecht is right. When you look at the Terps, they have so much talent and the ability to fit in transfers right away that gives them incredible depth.

The Terps play No. 9 Ohio State on Saturday, then Johns Hopkins before playing in the Big Ten Tournament. Next up will be the NCAA Tournament, and a lot of people have already put the Terps in the title game.

And that brings us back to the same questions that we always seem to ask about Maryland.

Who can beat Maryland and how do the Terps lose the national championship in 2022?

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NO. 9 OHIO STATE@NO. 1 MARYLAND

Saturday, 4 p.m.

TV: Big Ten Network


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