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Quint Kessenich: Breaking down the first round of the NCAA men’s lacrosse tournament

The first round of the NCAA men's lacrosse tournament this weekend offers fans eight terrific matchups. In a year defined by one-goal and overtime games, expect the unexpected. Let's take a closer look:

Towson at No. 7 seed Penn State, Saturday, noon, ESPNU

Skinny: Penn State will be making its fourth NCAA tournament appearance (2003, 2005, 2013, 2017). The Nittany Lions have never won a playoff game. Towson, the Colonial Athletic Association champion, is a tough draw, as the Tigers are experienced and play tenacious defense.

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Player to watch from Penn State: Freshman Mac O'Keefe (48 goals) is an interior shooter with a lethal lefty shot. If the Nittany Lions have success with perimeter dodges, O'Keefe will get chances to score.

Player to watch from Towson: Attackman Ryan Drenner (Westminster) is one of 11 in Towson's senior class who have won three CAA titles. He is on a 26-game point-scoring streak and has 87 career goals.

Pregame speech: Tigers coach Shawn Nadelen will seize the underdog role. His team flew to Denver last May and upset the 2015 champions. They've done this before. Playing with the eye of the Tiger, they can do it again.

Difference maker: Penn State is a one-goal favorite. Towson midfield defenders Tyler Mayes (Calvert Hall), Jack Adams (Hereford) and Zach Goodrich are superb. Can the defense contain shifty Penn State attackmen Nick Aponte and Grant Ament?

Duke at No. 6 Johns Hopkins, Saturday, 2:30 p.m., ESPNU

Skinny: Hopkins is 7-1 at home this year, with the lone loss in overtime to Syracuse. The Blue Jays are 4-6 in their past 10 games. The stench from their recent losses must be eradicated.

Meanwhile, Duke finished on a 10-2 tear. The Jays beat the Blue Devils in the 2005 and 2007 national title games, while Duke turned first-round and quarterfinal wins over Hopkins in 2010 and 2014 into championships. Hopkins is the first round's only home underdog.

Players to watch for Duke: Defenders JT Giles-Harris and Cade Van Raaphorst are the Blue Devils' one-two punch down low. They'll try to lock down Shack Stanwick (Boys' Latin) and Kyle Marr.

Players to watch for Johns Hopkins: Goaltending has been a problem. Brock Turnbaugh (Hereford) is coming off dreadful outings at Ohio State and Maryland, making just one save and allowing 12 goals. Gerry Logan is hot and cold. They've combined to save a paltry 46 percent of shots. One must stand tall.

Pregame speech: Jays coach Dave Pietramala might focus on the positives from 2017 -- wins over Loyola Maryland, North Carolina and Penn State. Everybody is 0-0.

Difference maker: The Blue Devils defense has allowed 7.7 goals per game during their past 12 games. It'll be tested by a skilled Hopkins motion offense that plays from behind the goal. This is a scheme Duke hasn't seen much in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Air Force at No. 5 Denver, Saturday, 5 p.m., ESPNU

Skinny: Denver is 11-0 when scoring 10 or more goals and 0-3 when scoring nine or fewer. Air Force has won consecutive Southern Conference titles. The Pioneers are a considerable favorite.

Player to watch for Denver: Trevor Baptiste wins faceoffs at a 69 percent rate.

Player to watch for Air Force: Chris Walsch (Gilman) is the conductor with 26 assists.

Pregame speech: Denver topped Air Force, 14-6, on Feb. 11. Coach Bill Tierney's squad has been on the losing end of rematches, most recently against Marquette in the Big East semifinals. It dropped a first-round game last year to Towson. Enough is enough.

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Difference maker: Opponents shoot 33 percent against Air Force. If Denver attackman and former Terp Connor Cannizzaro gets rolling, it will be a long day for the Falcons.

North Carolina at No. 8 Albany, Saturday, 7:30 p.m., ESPNU

Skinny: The atmosphere will be electric, with more than 5,555 tickets sold. It's the biggest home game in Albany history and will likely set an attendance record. North Carolina beat Syracuse and Notre Dame in winning the ACC tournament to salvage its seven-loss season. The defending champions have come to life.

Player to watch for North Carolina: Chris Cloutier is a stocky junior sniper from Canada with a history of playing his best at critical moments. The lefty is a hefty load.

Player to watch for Albany: The Great Danes lead the country in scoring offense, and Connor Fields is No. 1 nationally with 108 points. The southpaw is creative, is elusive and proves that great technique is the path to success. He's a "wow" moment waiting to happen.

Pregame speech: North Carolina coach Joe Breschi will emphasize communication through the noise, finishing and having fun. This is the type of game you dream about.

Difference maker: This is the most anticipated game of the first round and it's a pick 'em. Both teams strike quickly in transition. If Tar Heels defender Austin Pifani can hang with Fields, does Albany have enough complementary dodgers to draw slides?

Marquette at No. 4 Notre Dame, Sunday, noon, ESPNU

Skinny: Notre Dame topped Marquette, 11-10, on April 11, with midfielder Sergio Perkovic scoring six goals for the Fighting Irish. Marquette beat Denver and Providence on its way to the Big East title.

Players to watch for Notre Dame: Notre Dame is banged up with Ryder Garnsey and Perkovic sitting out the season-finale loss to Army West Point. The health of its top two scorers is paramount.

Player to watch for Marquette: Goalie Cole Blazer (.536 save percentage) from Illinois will be under fire. As it often does in hockey, a hot playoff goalie can go a long way.

Pregame speech: Marquette coach Joe Amplo and his Golden Eagles are playing with house money. All the pressure is on Notre Dame. Milwaukee's best will deliver a maximum effort.

Difference maker: Faceoffs loom large in what could be a low-scoring, slow-tempo game. Ball control wears down a defense and leads to scoring chances. Notre Dame is a shaky home favorite.

Bryant at No. 1 Maryland, Sunday, 2:30 p.m., ESPNU

Skinny: Maryland seniors are 57-14 and have played in the final four three times. Their theme song is "Money for Nothing" by Dire Straits. Bryant, winner of the Northeast Conference, manhandled Monmouth, the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference champion, on Wednesday night in the play-in game. Bryant upset Yale on March 5.

Player to watch for Maryland: Midfielder Connor Kelly can't miss, scoring 13 goals in his last three games while leading the Terps to the Big Ten title. He has flawless shooting mechanics and is always thinking ahead to find the seams in the defense.

Player to watch for Bryant: Tucker James was a freshman when Bryant stunned mighty Syracuse in the Carrier Dome in 2014. Now he holds program records for points and goals.

Pregame speech: Maryland coach John Tillman's prosperous group of seniors will be playing their final home game. Go out with a bang.

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Difference maker: Maryland players have 115 games of NCAA experience, including a 16-8 win over Bryant in the 2014 quarterfinals. Tllman's Terps must not be complacent. Bryant will play zone defense and try to eat the clock, milking faceoff wins by Kenny Massa. Maryland must start fast and squash any hope of an upset.

Loyola Maryland at No. 3 Ohio State, Sunday, 5 p.m., ESPN

Skinny: The Buckeyes are 9-1 at home. They won playoff games in 2013 and 2015 but have never played in championship weekend. Loyola took another Patriot League title and is in the midst of a late-season resurgence. The Greyhounds should be fresh coming off a bye week.

Player to watch for Loyola: Pat Spencer, a Tewaaraton Award finalist, is the nation's best pure passer. He is a takeover artist, capable of setting up teammates and elevating his team.

Player to watch for Ohio State: Jake Withers, Ohio State's faceoff man, stirs the drink. He's rugged, is skillful and when he gets on a roll, those faceoff wins put opponents in the danger zone.

Pregame speech: Greyhounds coach Charley Toomey knows his team must win the individual battles to win the war. He will ask his bench and substitutes for juice and energy playing in the hostile Horseshoe. Winning on the road in the tournament starts with defense.

Difference maker: The Greyhounds have outscored opponents 40-13 over their past three games and now step up in class. Can they handle the Buckeyes' physicality? Ohio State rookie goal scorer Tre Leclaire has taken the nation by storm. The bigger and stronger Buckeyes are 2 1/2-goal favorites.

Yale at No. 2 Syracuse, Sunday, 7:30 p.m., ESPNU

Skinny: The Orange are sitting on a time bomb, winners of a staggering eight one-goal games. They've been successful but haven't been dominant. Yale captured another Ivy League title with razor-thin wins over Penn and Brown.

Player to watch for Yale: Ben Reeves, a Tewaaraton finalist, is the catalyst for the Bulldogs. The lean lefty glides to the goal and is equally effective as a scorer or setup man. Reeves is a molecular, cellular and developmental biology major who has done extensive cancer research.

Players to watch for Syracuse: The midfield tandem of Sergio Salcido and Nick Mariano is the nation's best. Salcido, from Winter Park, Fla., plays as if he has X-ray vision. His snub from the Tewaaraton final five was wrong. Mariano is a UMass transfer with a quick release that makes goalies turn and rake.

Pregame speech: Veteran coach John Desko has made shrewd moves all season and might be inclined to remind his team to make the "we" decisions before the "me" decisions. The Orange must stay true to their team-first identity.

Difference maker: Yale can score but its defense has often been exposed. The faceoff matchup between the Bulldogs' Connor Mackie and Syracuse's Ben Williams will dictate the flow. The Orange, favored by two goals, will be on guard after previous home playoff losses to Army and Bryant.

Quint Kessenich covers college sports for ESPN and writes weekly for The Baltimore Sun during lacrosse season. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/QKessenich.

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