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Here's what to look for during the 2015 college lacrosse season

Attackman Matt Kavanagh (left) and Notre Dame could become first-time national champions at the end of this season.
Attackman Matt Kavanagh (left) and Notre Dame could become first-time national champions at the end of this season. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

It's less than a week after Super Bowl XLIX and, believe it or not, some college lacrosse teams already have played regular-season games. But the season gets started in earnest this weekend with many of the top teams in action, including a matchup featuring two of my top 10 teams.

The season will conclude Memorial Day weekend in Philadelphia with the national semifinals and championship game. Between now and then, a lot will happen. Contenders will turn out to be pretenders and some school nobody expected will make a run to the NCAA tournament. New stars will emerge, while older ones will try to prove they still have what it takes.

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With all that in mind, here are 10 things to follow in 2015:

Lyle Thompson

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The co-Tewaaraton Award winner from 2014 returns for his senior season on pace to break the NCAA all-time scoring record. He scored at least four points in each of Albany's 18 games and had at least six points in 16 of 18 games. Thompson led Division I in points per game at 7.11 and assists per game at 4.28. His talent and personality transcends lacrosse — he's by far the most compelling athlete in the game and one of the best players of all time.

A first-time champion: Denver or Notre Dame

Duke will take a step backward in 2015 with an inexperienced lineup, leaving the door open for Denver or Notre Dame to snag its first NCAA title. The Fighting Irish played for the NCAA title in 2010 and 2014. Coach Kevin Corrigan welcomes back his most-talented roster to date. Denver has played in back-to-back semifinals and features the nation's most-feared offense and a coach, Bill Tierney, who has won six NCAA titles.

Players to watch

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Myles Jones: The Dominating Duke midfielder keeps improving.

Connor Buczek: Cornell's main man from Cincinnati.

Kevin Rice: Syracuse's ringleader is always producing points.

Wesley Berg: Denver's best player is ready to have a gigantic senior season.

Matt Kavanagh: Notre Dame's lefty catalyst.

Honorable mention: John Glesener (Army), Wells Stanwick (Johns Hopkins), Nikko Pontrello (Loyola Maryland), Joey Sankey (North Carolina), Randy Staats (Syracuse) and Jesse King (Ohio State).

Top teams

Here is my preseason top 10:

1. Notre Dame: 2014 NCAA championship finalist.

2. Denver: Owns the country's top offense.

3. North Carolina: Dangerous lineup with a new offensive coordinator.

4. Syracuse: Great attack, but will it improve on faceoffs?

5. Johns Hopkins: This should be the best Blue Jays team we've seen in a while.

6. Cornell: Favorite to win the Ivy League with Buczek and Matt Donovan.

7. Virginia: Talented team must not fade in May.

8. Duke: Will miss Jordan Wolf, Christian Walsh and the entire defense.

9. Loyola Maryland: The favorite in the Patriot League.

10. Maryland: Lots of new faces on the field in College Park.

Teams eyeing a breakthrough spring

•Fairfield won a dozen games in 2014 and steps up from the Eastern College Athletic Conference to the Colonial Athletic Association. Coach Andy Copelan relies on attackman Colin McLinden and midfielder T.J. Neubauer (Loyola Blakefield) for scoring punch.

•Harvard won 10 games in 2014 and returns the majority of its lineup.

•Hofstra played in 14 games decided by one or two goals. The Pride is favored to win the CAA with attackman Sam Llinares.

•Navy is 7-20 over the past two seasons and hasn't beaten a ranked opponent since March 2012. Maybe it can turn things around this spring in the Patriot League with an influx of young talent.

•Siena is favored to win the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference with an offense featuring Richie Hurley and Conor Prunty.

•Bryant will try to prove that its 16-5 record in 2014 wasn't a mirage. The Northeast Conference champion beat Albany, Drexel and Syracuse along the way to the NCAA quarterfinals.

Conference realignment

ACC: The five-member Atlantic Coast Conference loses Maryland but retains its automatic qualifier for one season. The conference would benefit from growth at Virginia Tech, Wake Forest, Florida State or North Carolina State.

Big Ten: Inaugural season for the six-member conference featuring Maryland, Rutgers, Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State and affiliate member Johns Hopkins.

America East: First-year program UMass-Lowell joins the fray.

CAA: Fairfield joins, and Penn State departed for the Big Ten.

Ten automatic qualifiers into the NCAA tournament will be earned from conference champions. There will be eight at-large bids for a total of 18 teams. As in 2014, two play-in games will take place between the four lowest-rated teams in the RPI.

Parity among teams ranked No. 11 to 50

Sixty-nine teams play Division I lacrosse. There are about 10 capable of winning a national championship. There are fewer than a dozen teams on the opposite end of the spectrum who qualify as bottom-feeders. Those programs have gotten immensely better with the growth of the high school game across the country and universities investing more in lacrosse. So what has evolved in the past 10 years is a massive pack of parity in which the teams ranked in the 20s, 30s and 40s take turns knocking each other off. They are very similar in talent levels, coaching and resources.

Early recruiting

Johns Hopkins has received 11 oral commitments from high school freshmen. Nationally, 53 such agreements have been reached. Hopkins isn't alone in its pursuit of young phenoms as programs such as North Carolina and Virginia now regularly evaluate eighth-graders.

This disturbing trend is counterproductive for athletes who start playing lacrosse in middle school or don't have the money to join a summer club team. It also encourages specialization. How does a world-class university like Johns Hopkins promise admission to a ninth-grader less than two semesters into his high school career? High school freshmen and sophomores should be off-limits.

Winter sport

The season never has started so early — practices began Jan. 5. The premature start isn't beneficial for players, who battle sickness and injuries in frigid temperatures, and fans, who must endure the arcticlike weather. Coaches are hesitant to add midweek games in April or move championship weekend off Memorial Day into June, so they've selfishly and foolishly backed the schedule into January.

New rules

New rules include an adjustment to the faceoff and installation of visible shot clocks. A visible shot clock will be used to time the 30-second stalling segment in facilities capable of displaying clocks. All Division I programs will be required to have clocks displayed by the 2016 season.

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A faceoff violation will be called if a player picks up or carries the ball on the back of his stick. It's still legal to clamp the ball with the back side of the stick, but the ball must be moved, raked or directed immediately. The faceoff protocol also has changed, with the official now placing the ball on the ground evenly between the sticks.

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These are superficial changes to a game lacking tempo and in need of an overhaul. The fastest game on two feet is being played at a snail's pace.

Quint Kessenich covers college sports for ESPN and writes for The Baltimore Sun.

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