5 burning questions to be answered in the NCAA college lacrosse semifinals
We've trimmed the DI men's lacrosse season down to just four teams, which means we're about to crown a new national champion. Will it be a team we've seen win before, like Maryland or Duke? Or will one of the newcomers, Yale or Albany, get their first taste of national success?
Before the title game, these four teams will do battle to reach the last game of the season. Here's what we're thinking about before the games begin.
1. Yale won’t just steamroll Albany again… right?
When Yale and Albany met up on April 22, the game couldn’t have been more hotly anticipated. Two of the best teams in the country, rife with star power, were going to collide, probably score a whole bunch, and have a lot of fun.
Instead, Yale lambasted Albany 14-6, a game that wasn’t competitive for the majority of the 60 minutes.
FINAL: @YaleLacrosse 14, @UAlbanyMLax 6— US Lacrosse Magazine (@USLacrosseMag) April 22, 2018
A thoroughly dominant performance for the Bulldogs against the Great Danes in front of a sellout crowd at Reese Stadium. Reeves, Cotler, Gaudet 3G apiece. GBs - Yale 41, Albany 15 pic.twitter.com/Ug7GhQdUKZ
There was, of course, the case of Albany’s faceoff expert TD Ierlan having a rare bad day at the office, but we’ll touch on that later.
The main problem for the Danes was watching their star Connor Fields suffer a knee injury that would sideline him for a good chunk of the game and hamper him all the way through the America East tournament.
If you watched Albany’s win over Denver last week, though, you were gifted to Fields making plenty of hard plants and cuts against the Pios’ defense. Fields might not be 100 percent back, but he’s healed well enough by now to at least command the respect a Top 15 player in the country deserves.
So, is a healthy Fields enough to close the eight-goal gap from April?
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Yeah, probably. That game was weird for all sorts of reasons, and Yale pounced on an unnerved Albany squad reeling without its captain. This time around, Tehoka Nanticoke is looking like a death machine, Ierlan is full of confidence, and Fields is healthy enough to open the field for his teammates.
Hopefully we’ll be treated to the game we were expecting last month.
2. Is Duke’s offense good enough to overpower Maryland?
When you play Duke, more often than not you just get run over. It's not necessarily your fault. There's only so much you can do against a team with this much firepower and talent.
The Blue Devils' offense, led by Justin Guterding (61 goals!), is deep and elite. They have four different 25-goal scorers, and they rank second in the nation with 13.78 goals per game, nearly two goals per game better than Maryland.
24 hours ago in Annapolis... pic.twitter.com/CJoaPWmPot— Duke Men's Lacrosse (@DukeMLAX) May 21, 2018
The Terps? They can score, too. They rank ninth in the nation. But they average nearly two fewer goals per game than the Blue Devils. Maryland scores when it wins. Duke wins because it scores.
And this is what fascinates me about this matchup: Maryland wins by an average of 2.65 goals per game, but Duke blows teams out of the water to the tune of a +5.53 average goal differential. Duke has scored at least 15 goals seven times this year, hit double-digits all but three times -- and still won two of those three single-digit outings.
Duke might have too much firepower for the Terps, despite how sharp Maryland looked against another big-time offense in Cornell last weekend. Maryland's scoring defense allows fewer than 10 goals per game, good for a Top 20 unit in the country. That should be cause for confidence among the red-and-black faithful.
The problem? Duke's better at scoring defense, too.
Good luck, Terps.
3. Can TD Ierlan fix what went wrong against Connor Mackie?
One week after the biggest matchup of his life, Albany’s faceoff wunderkind TD Ierlan gets a chance to rectify one of his very few slip-ups from this season.
In that game-gone-wrong vs. Yale we addressed earlier, Ierlan was startlingly out-dueled by the Bulldogs’ Connor Mackie. Mackie won 13 of 21 faceoffs as the Elis pummeled the Danes. Now, Mackie’s a great player in his own right: he’s ranked in the Top 10 in the nation all season long, currently sitting at a win percentage of 64.6. But Ierlan is doing something that the sport has never seen. He doesn’t lose. It just doesn’t happen.
Video | @UAlbanyMLax is headed to Championship Weekend thanks in no small part to the play of TD Ierlan and Troy Reh, who helped equalize Denver's faceoff specialist Trevor Baptiste #DaneTrain #NCAAMLAX pic.twitter.com/JMZhw6GK4s— UAlbany Sports (@UAlbanySports) May 21, 2018
So how’s Ierlan going to respond? Maybe by using the momentum he built from tangling with a legend, Trevor Baptiste, and emerging relatively victorious.
Ierlan split last week’s 30 faceoffs with Baptiste down the middle, but plenty of lacrosse pundits (yours truly excluded) believed Ierlan was going to be in for a rough day. Instead, the sophomore fought with the much larger Baptiste tooth-and-nail, using his quick hands and razor-sharp technique to combat Baptiste’s physicality. Ierlan was also, plain and simple, more physical than he’s needed to be for most of the season.
Which is good timing, because after the loss to Mackie and Yale, Ierlan told the Times-Union’s Mark Singelais that Mackie “was just a really good athlete, really fast, really strong. Maybe not as quick hands, but really strong and really good reaction time.”
Sounds a whole lot like the way Baptiste handles faceoffs, no? Mackie, like Baptiste, has a noticeable size advantage against Ierlan, including standing three inches taller than Baptiste. But Ierlan handled the brute strength and blazing talent from last week with aplomb. If I had to bet, I’d say Ierlan bounces back from the last showdown and out-duels Mackie this time around.
4. What does Bubba Fairman have in store for an encore?
Holy smokes, did Bubba Fairman light up Cornell. Fairman, the freshman midfielder from Utah, netted a hat trick, added two assists, and generally was everywhere in the Terps’ dominating quarterfinal win over Cornell.
It was a clear standout performance: Fairman scored 15 percent of his points for the entire season vs. Big Red, despite the game representing just six percent of the season. That’s nearly three-fold production in just one game! And it was a nice way to lift the burden off Maryland’s most-used producers, like Connor Kelly.
Just a few days before the win I’d asked whether Maryland’s lack of depth would ever come back to bite the Terps: can a team keep winning when its production largely comes from the same handful of guys? Eventually, defenses will wizen up and figure out how to shut them down, right?
Well, Fairman did his part to diversify Maryland’s attack. Kelly notched just one point, a goal, in a 13-goal Terps performance, something I never would’ve thought possible. So perhaps Maryland’s offense is starting to blossom at the right time. I can’t wait to see what Fairman does next.
5. Do you give the winner of the “new blood” semifinal a chance?
This is intriguing, because while Duke began the season ranked No. 1 and Maryland spent plenty of time in that spot, Albany and Yale also took their turns as the top-ranked teams in the country.
There’s not much of a question that these four teams deserve to have reached this final weekend. The question becomes: can a rising star, in Yale or Albany, take on the powerhouses that are Duke and Maryland?
The Terps and Blue Devils each have won three national championships. For Yale and Albany, this marks each program’s first appearance in the semifinals.
There might be something said for experience as far as coaching is concerned, but when it comes to the product on the field, I think both Yale and Albany match up well against their more traditional foes.
The upstart squads have dominant faceoff men, while neither Duke nor Maryland has a single player ranked in the top 25 in the country at the X. Albany and Yale are two of the most active teams in the nation when it comes to ground balls per game, ranking third and fifth, respectively, while Duke comes in 10th and Maryland ranks — get ready — a staggering 51st. The Terps pick up eight fewer ground balls than the Danes!
All of that to say, while Duke and Maryland are home to incredible scoring forces like Guterding and Kelly, it’s hard to score when your team doesn’t have the ball. Yale and Albany are possession teams by nature, and keep-away-and-score is the best strategy against a team that wins with its offense.
Maybe, in the end, the lacrosse gods care more about certain programs than others. I don’t think that’s the case, and I think whichever team emerges from the duel between Yale and Albany will have a real shot at winning its first national title.