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'Barometer games' are on tap this weekend

Johns Hopkins attackman Ryan Brown (4) shouts as midfielder Joel Tinney (55) runs in to congratulate him after he scored against Towson.
Johns Hopkins attackman Ryan Brown (4) shouts as midfielder Joel Tinney (55) runs in to congratulate him after he scored against Towson. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

Sure, there's plenty of lacrosse left to be played this season. But this weekend brings us five games — we'll call them "barometer games" — that could determine a team's direction the rest of the season.

The games will gauge the quality of the teams involved. Will they be contenders or pretenders?

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The time to jell is now. Can they do it?

No. 1 Denver at No. 4 North Carolina

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Friday, 4 p.m., ESPNU

Denver is looking for its first NCAA lacrosse title. The Pioneers beat No. 6 Duke, 17-13, in Week 1 with an offensive onslaught. They are highly skilled and deep on offense. Freshman faceoff man Trevor Baptiste and Maryland transfer Connor Cannizzaro have been game-changers. But Carolina has the nation's fastest roster, spearheaded by attackmen Joey Sankey and Jimmy Bitter.

"They are so aggressive in early offense, the first 10 seconds of a possession before the defense can get organized, attacking the goal with Sankey and Bitter in three-on-three and four-on-four scenarios," Denver coach Bill Tierney said.

The Tar Heels have lost to the Pioneers three straight years in the NCAA tournament. Carolina is 4-0 in 2015 with high-scoring wins over Furman, High Point, Massachusetts and No. 12 Johns Hopkins.

A new year is a new chapter in the rivalry.

"It's February and our main concern is us — getting better and reacting to situations," North Carolina coach Joe Breschi said. "But anytime you have the top-ranked team coming to your home turf, it's exciting."

Carolina's defense is long, is agile and throws checks, but it took too many fouls in the win against Hopkins. After four games, it has a whopping 27 penalties. That could be costly. The Heels have been platooning goalies, which means they don't have one yet. Carolina likely will mix man-to-man and zone schemes on defense and try to protect the paint.

These teams are destined to clash in May with more on the line.

No. 18 Princeton at No. 12 Johns Hopkins

Saturday, 1 p.m. ESPN3 (reair Sunday, 10 a.m., ESPNU)

At 2-2, Hopkins is on thin ice. The remaining schedule includes No. 10 Maryland, No. 5 Virginia and No. 3 Syracuse, but if the Blue Jays drop a game to Princeton, the pathway into the NCAA playoffs goes through the Big Ten automatic qualifier.

Neither team has played on championship weekend in years. For more than a decade, this rivalry was the traditional season opener. It's been a back-and-forth series, tied at five wins each in the past 10 years.

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The Tigers are 2-0 with wins over Manhattan and Hofstra, a game played in a blizzard. Coach Chris Bates has weapons in Mike MacDonald, Kip Orban and Zach Currier. Princeton experienced three one-goal losses a year ago and must improve its faceoffs and defensive midfield.

"We have a hungry and humble team," Bates said. "We've put extra emphasis on the fundamentals and are just trying to win the day."

Left-handed goalie Eric Sanschagrin (64 percent saves) has been sharp, but I don't see the Tigers shutting down Hopkins.

The Blue Jays came up flat at No. 17 Towson and couldn't run with No. 4 North Carolina last weekend. They have wins over UMBC and Villanova. Midfield production and key saves have been in short supply. Hopkins has been relying too heavily on shooter Ryan Brown. Starting defenseman Robert Enright is out with a knee injury.

This game will be revealing for both teams.

No. 11 Penn at Penn State

Saturday, 1 p.m.

Bragging rights are on the line in this budding in-state rivalry between two teams that expect to be in the NCAA tournament.

Penn, which lost at No. 10 Maryland on Tuesday, was a playoff team in 2014. The Quakers play an old-fashioned style, using 12 midfielders who play offense and defense. They don't use specialists. How radical! They substitute efficiently and try to get the opposing team's offensive midfielders stuck playing defense. Because they aren't sprinting to the sub box on a turnover, they ride well.

Penn State is off to a slow start. The Nittany Lions are desperate for a win after losses to No. 15 Loyola Maryland and Villanova. They have been turnover-prone and have to shoot the ball more confidently. Nick Aponte played with a purpose against the Wildcats. Pat Manley, Matt Florence and T.J. Sanders must become consistent playmakers. Faceoff man Drake Kreinz is trying to rediscover his 2014 form.

The Big Ten has struggled, and this game offers Penn State a ticket back into the Top 20.

Ohio State vs. No. 16 Marquette

Sunday, 1 p.m., at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Ky.

Is Marquette for real? The Golden Eagles are playing their third season of Division I lacrosse. They were 5-8 in 2014 and are 3-0 this season, having beaten No. 20 Lehigh, Hofstra and Richmond, all by a goal. Marquette plays Detroit today and Ohio State on Sunday both as part of a jamboree.

Coach Joe Amplo has done an amazing work in Milwaukee. His roster represents 14 states and Canada.

"Our plan is to attract players who have something to prove," Amplo said. "We try not to get caught up in the early recruiting hype and player rankings."

The Eagles' inaugural game, in 2013, was an 18-8 loss to the Buckeyes, and last year they fell 11-8. Marquette is closing the gap.

Ohio State stubbed its toe in the opener against Detroit. Buckeyes coach Nick Myers is aware of Marquette's improvement.

"Jordan Greenfield and Conor Gately are the real deal," he said. "They are complemented by a couple of Canadians to make a nice mix."

The Buckeyes' best player is Jesse King, who's starting to find a rhthym flanked by Carter Brown and David Planning. On defense, Myers relies on Evan Mulchrone and Robby Haus (Gilman).

Marquette is ranked, but Ohio State is favored.

No. 5 Virginia at No. 3 Syracuse

Sunday, noon, ESPNU

Both rosters are loaded with highly-regarded goal scorers. Home-field advantage has been huge in this series.

Both are unbeaten, with Syracuse impressively defeating No. 9 Cornell and No. 14 Army at the Carrier Dome. Ben Williams' faceoff dominance, a dynamic attack and a nasty defense with star cover man Brandon Mullins has Orange fans dreaming of another gold trophy.

"The Syracuse attack has terrific chemistry and instincts," ESPN analyst Paul Carcaterra said. "In a high-possession game the Orange will need more production from their second midfield line."

Virginia owns wins over No. 15 Loyola Maryland and Rutgers. The Cavaliers' inexperienced defense might get torched by the Orange attack of Kevin Rice, Dylan Donahue and Randy Staats. It's a nightmare matchup for Virginia defenders Logan Greco, Scott Hooper and Davi Sacco.

If Virginia wins faceoffs, it can keep pace. Zed Williams, Ryan Lukacovic, James Pannell, Owen Van Arsdale, Ryan Tucker and Greg Coholan form the most potent unit Syracuse has seen. Cavaliers midfielders could have dodging success.

Who makes more saves, Matt Barrett or Bobby Wardwell? The dimly-lit dome, with it's silver-and-gray backdrop, isn't kind to opposing goalies.

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This matchup, like the rest, is a litmus test. The rivalry is a fan favorite because of the fireworks.

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Quint Kessenich covers college sports for ESPN and writes weekly for The Baltimore Sun during lacrosse season.

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