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Adam Hermann | NCAA.com | January 24, 2018

5 storylines to follow as the 2018 season gets underway

It's lacrosse season? It's lacrosse season. We've waited eight months since Maryland's title run last spring, and now lax is back.

This year’s season kicks off with Furman hosting Vermont on Feb. 1 at 6 p.m. ET, and then truly gets going with a huge opening Saturday featuring five teams ranked in the United States Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association’s Top 20 preseason poll.

MORE: Full USILA Top 20 rankings

Before that all commences, let’s take a quick stroll around the lacrosse landscape and catch up on a few things to watch this year.

1. How does Syracuse respond to graduating its three best scorers?

The Orange haven’t missed the NCAA tournament since 2007. That’s quite a way to start talking about Syracuse this season, but it’s a conversation at least worth entertaining.

The Orange (ranked No. 10 in the USILA preseason poll) should still be a very good team and make plenty of noise in the ACC, but after graduation their top three point-getters from 2017 (Sergio Salcido, Nick Mariano, and Jordan Evans), as well as a very good mid and primary faceoff man in Ben Williams (29th in the country in faceoff percentage), the Orange are going to need to find big names to fill big shoes.

The good news: Brendan Bomberry and Nate Solomon, a pair of 28-goal scorers, return. Bomberry was staggeringly accurate last season, ranking third in the nation in shot percentage at .509. The question, of course, becomes: can that efficiency remain when his shot numbers hew closer to 100 attempts than his 2017 total of 55? The fact that he put 80 percent of his shots on goal is certainly reassuring.

Another good sign: defenseman Nick Mellen returns after missing all of 2017 with an injury, to shore up a back line that loses senior defender Sam Firman and senior goalie Evan Molloy. The Orange allowed just over 10 goals per game last year. Mellen will need to team up with Tyson Bomberry and Marcus Cunningham to keep Cuse afloat in case the offense sees a dip in productivity. 

It might be a tougher slog than usual for the Orange, and it’ll be interesting to see how the young guns respond to increased responsibility. Never doubt John Desko.

2. Penn State should win its first NCAA tournament game this year

Yes, the Nittany Lions should finally do it. 

Penn State has made the NCAA tournament four times since 1971, and all four have come in the past 15 seasons. Now, Jeff Tambroni has his team poised to make its first back-to-back trips to the tournament. 

The name of the game for the Nits is offense. 

Despite a defense that ranked 38th in the country with 10.69 goals allowed per game in 2017, PSU still had the twelfth-best scoring margin last year, winning games by over two and a half goals per game. Its 13.31 goals per game was the sixth-highest in the nation. Basically, the plan was to outscore its opponents all year long, and until they ran into the Towson team of destiny in the first round of the tournament, it worked.

It all starts with Mac O’Keefe, who set a school record for goals by a freshman with 51. The New York native led the way for the PSU attack, finishing second in the nation in goals scored, and junior Grant Arment (30 goals and 30 assists) is back for one more go-round as well.

Faceoff man Gerard Arceri also returns after winning 61.8 percent of his faceoffs in 2017, the sixth-best mark in the country and second-most by a freshman. For a team interested in possessing the ball as often as possible, Arceri’s ability to kickstart the Nittany Lions’ offense is invaluable.

RELATED: Men’s lacrosse to experiment with shot clock this fall

Barring something unforeseen, PSU should snag its third season with double-digit wins since the turn of the millennium, and come postseason play they’ll be as dangerous as anyone.

3. Can Rutgers go to the tournament without Adam Charalambides?

The Scarlet Knights can’t catch a break, and neither can Adam Charalambides. Following the most successful season in recent history, Rutgers announced Jan. 23 that the attack man would miss his second straight season after suffering a pre-season injury. He scored 43 goals in 16 games as a freshman but hasn’t played since the end of the 2016 season. With Charalambides in tow, Rutgers stood ready for a breakout year. Now, they’ll have to grit and grind to reach those heights.

And yet, this comes after a 2017 in which the men’s lacrosse team became the first Rutgers squad to rank No. 1 nationally -- in any sport -- in a dozen years with its 8-0 start. The Scarlet Knights stumbled, losing four of their final six games of the season, but the promise was there.

Which is why it seems the door is open for Brian Brecht’s team to make its first postseason appearance since 2004. Brecht has been working towards this moment since he joined the team early in this decade; after enduring a brutal 2-13 campaign in 2013, the progress has been marked, and the Scarlet Knights have racked up 21 wins over the last two years. 

Freshman Kieran Mullins ranked tied for 17th in the entire country in goals per game last season, scoring 35 in 14 outings. Between Mullins, senior Jules Heningburg, and redshirt junior Casey Rose, three of RU’s four 20-goal scorers from 2017 are back in this year’s lineup, as is senior faceoff man Joe Francisco. 

If Charalambides was healthy, RU’s inclusion in the postseason would be a foregone conclusion; the question at hand would be how high its ceiling could be. Instead, Brecht will need to wring every ounce of potential out of his squad once again if he wants to break the Scarlet Knights’ tournament dry spell.

4. If defense wins championships, Providence could be a dark horse

If Penn State’s mindset is offense first, second, and third, Providence is the Nittany Lions’ photo negative. The Friars nearly muscled their way into the NCAA tournament last season, but were ultimately felled by losing their final three games of the year to Brown, Denver, and Villanova, the loss to the Pioneers (a 12-2 thrashing) being by far their worst defeat of the season.

But Chris Gabrielli’s team returns its top three scorers from a year ago, and more importantly it brings back Tate Boyce, one of the finest goalies in the country. 

Boyce, now a junior, ranked sixth in the country last season both in goals allowed average (8.05) and save percentage (.569), and the Friars’ 8.35 team GAA was the ninth-best in the nation. Boyce will be called upon once again to bolster Providence’s back end, and he should be more than up to the task after a breakout 2017.

Yet Boyce won’t be alone in his attempts to push Providence towards the postseason. The friars return their top five point-getters from last season, including junior attacker Brendan Kearns and junior mid Nick Hatzipetrakos (say that five times fast), far and away the team’s two best scorers a year ago. 

The Friars aren’t offense-forward by any means — they only scored 10 goals in seven of their 17 games last season — but with a brick wall in Boyce and plenty of continuity on the attack, they should have more than enough talent at their disposal to make a push for the tournament.

5. What does Towson do for an encore? 

We’ll end with another treatise on the importance of defense because, like Providence, Towson built its identity last season on its stinginess. 

The Tigers scored under 10 goals per game in 2017, but their stymying defense (7.65 GAA) ranked fourth in the entire country, and was more than a goal per game better than any other team in the Colonial Athletic Association.

On the plus side, Shawn Nadelen’s team returns three of its most prominent defenders from last year in Sid Ewell, Chad Patterson, and Gray Bodden, all of whom started at least 16 games. They also return both goalies, Matt Hoy and Josh Miller, from a two-headed approach that yielded tremendous results. Each goalie saw at least 450 minutes of action, and neither allowed 70 goals on the year. Not too shabby.

Now to the down side: gone is long stick mid Tyler Mayes’ ability to disrupt opposing offenses, which was a huge part of Towson’s shutdown defense. He caused 2.35 turnovers per game in 2017, the fourth-best mark for any player in the country. The Tigers also graduated their top three scorers from last year’s campaign, meaning the emphasis on defense is going to be ratcheted up in a big way. 

Expecting a repeat trip to the tournament might be a stretch, but then no one expected Nadelen to pilot his team to the Final Four last year, so don’t count the Tigers out just yet.