The lacrosse semifinals weekend seems so far away for most of the year. Thankfully, it's finally here. Yale vs. Penn State. Duke vs. Virginia. The possibilities — well, they're not endless, but they are exciting.
We don't want you to miss a minute, so we dove into the numbers and storylines before things kick off Saturday afternoon.
Here are eight questions that will be answered by the time a champion is crowned Monday.
1. Is Yale a powerhouse now?
The Bulldogs have found their way to a second straight semifinals after appearing in just one, in 1990, from 1971 to 2017. They won last year's title and now sit at the doorstep of glory with a legitimate chance to go back-to-back.
Penn had a fantastic season this time around, nearly reaching this weekend, but it's been clear for the last two years that Yale is the class of the Ivy League. The question now becomes: are they the class of the country?
At the least, there's an argument to be made that this run isn't over yet. TD Ierlan, Jackson Morrill and Matt Gaudet are all juniors. Matt Brandau is a freshman, and Brian Tevlin is a sophomore. Just by reaching this weekend, they've set themselves up for a possible three-year semifinals stretch, something unthinkable just 730 days ago.
Andy Shay has tapped into something real since he came on board in 2010 and the hard work of those first half-dozen years is starting to reveal itself in this current run. If Yale reaches the title game this weekend, and especially if the Bulldogs win it all once again, this two-season stretch could be the one that changed the school's lacrosse program from "great" to "elite."
2. How does Penn State handle going from "let's win one" to "let's win it all?"
Something similar has happened with the Nittany Lions, maybe even more drastic: before this season, Penn State had never won an NCAA tournament game. Now, it's the best team in the country and could win a national championship.
The numbers are clearly all there. Mac O’Keefe (4.41) leads the country in goals per game, Grant Ament (7.38) leads the country in points per game and Jack Kelly (52.6%) is third in the nation in shooting percentage. This offense, averaging 18 goals per game and winning by more than seven goals per game, is a juggernaut unlike any we've seen in a long time. Almost no one (we'll touch on this later) has been able to contain them.
But now the lights are brighter, and the stakes are higher. Only 16 schools have reached a championship game since 1971, and only 11 have hoisted the trophy. Penn State isn't on either one of those lists, but if this group of players — featuring a core that has spent lots of time together — can keep its composure, these Nittany Lions could become legends.
3. Which player scores the most goals over the weekend?
Let's ignore the obvious answer in Penn State's Mac O'Keefe, the best scorer in the nation by a landslide this season at 4.41 goals per game. O'Keefe would be an easy choice, and we wouldn't blame you for making that pick. But let's look outside of Penn State's offense for answers.
Virginia's Matt Moore is the first player in UVA history to score 40 goals and 40 assists in the same season, and the sophomore probably wouldn't mind making a statement on a national stage against an ACC rival. For what it's worth, Moore scored four of his team's seven goals earlier this year against Duke.
Duke, meanwhile, might look to last year's postseason breakout star in Naekeie Montgomery. The sophomore had an unreal 2018 postseason, and has scored four goals in two games so far during the NCAA tournament. He showed he was willing to let the ball fly in the Blue Devils' second-round win, launching seven shots. I think he has more goals in him.
Yale had a pair of 40-goal scorers this year in Matt Gaudet and Jackson Morrill. If I have to choose one or the other to fill up the nets this weekend, I'll go with Morrill. He's potted three against Georgetown and four against Penn so far, and has 19 goals in his last five games. The junior is on fire in a real way heading into the biggest games of the year.
4. Will Duke's defense be enough?
Three of the four remaining squads have Top 10 offenses: Penn State leads the nation in goals per game, Yale ranks second, and Virginia ranks sixth.
Then there's Duke, all the way back in 21st.
The Blue Devils rely largely on their scoring defense. They rank sixth in the nation in scoring defense, allowing just 9.41 goals per game, thanks in large part to a stellar season from senior goalkeeper Turner Uppgren. The Blue Devils haven't necessarily struggled to score, and their scoring margin (2.82 goals per game) is a Top 10 mark, but they're not exactly posting splashy scores every time out.
And that's what could concern Duke fans. Look at the way the Blue Devils arrived here: by eking out one-goal wins over the No. 27 offense in Richmond, and the No. 34 offense in Notre Dame. Now they face three of the six best offenses in the country, including either No. 1 or No. 2 if they advance to the title game. Uppgren, and the fellas in front of him, managed to keep the Spiders and Irish in check. Can they do the same with a blazing-hot Nittany Lions offense?
They say defense wins championships. This weekend, Duke will test that hypothesis.
5. Can Virginia end this surprising run with a title?
Count me among the people blindsided by how fast Lars Tiffany has turned Virginia around. When he arrived, UVA had lost a dozen straight ACC games. A former powerhouse with five titles to its name, Virginia was stumbling and hadn't reached a semifinal since 2011, when it won its most recent championship.
Just three years later, Tiffany led this Virginia team to a 15-3 record and has the Cavaliers one win away from a return to the national title game.
Even if Virginia doesn't beat Duke on Saturday, or if they're felled by either Yale or Penn State in the championship game, this season has to feel like a momentous success. The Cavaliers are sixth in the nation in goals per game, and their top four scorers from this season — along with freshman face-off phenom Petey LaSalla — all return next year.
Virginia's deep scoring and disciplined defense means this team shouldn't be counted out just yet, but a lack of experience could eventually be its downfall against these more seasoned squads.
If it is, UVA fans shouldn't dismay. The Cavaliers have shown this year that they're back to stay, and they plan on competing for semifinal berths for the foreseeable future.
6. Who might be the surprise star in Philly?
You could answer this question about 100 different ways. I’m going to be bold and just pick one player.
If Virginia does manage to squeak past Duke into the title game, and then topples either Yale or Penn State, give me Dox Aitken any day of the week. The Cavaliers' third-year man from Villanova, Pennsylvania, brings a steady game: he's scored at least one goal in all but one game this season, a loss to — would you look at that! — Duke. Aitken probably wants to make up for that lost opportunity.
His shot percentage is a hit-or-miss 31.2 percent, but when he's on, Aitken is nearly impossible to stop, and he makes Virginia terrifying to play against.
7. How do you stop Penn State's offense?
The Nittany Lions are deadly. Whether this is the best PSU offense ever is no longer a question; instead, we're asking if this could be one of the best men's lacrosse offenses ever, full stop.
When they shoot, the Nittany Lions tend to score. Penn State scored at least 15 goals in all but four games this season, shooting a nation-best 43.3 percent, and never scored fewer than 13 goals. Only 13 teams in the nation even averaged 13 goals per game this year, much less scored 13 or more each time out.
One of Penn State's three 13-goal outings was, notably, against Yale, an early-season showdown between two of the best teams in the country that was, of course, decided by one goal.
Yale presents the perfect counterpunch to a team that scores when it shoots, and also scores a lot: the Bulldogs win face-offs. They do this by having the best face-off man in the history of the sport in TD Ierlan. When the two teams faced off in New Haven in late November, Ierlan won 25 of 31 face-offs against Gerard Arceri, which meant Penn State only got 34 shots off, and only 20 were on goal.
When Penn State can dictate play and work the ball between their stars, they're nearly unstoppable. If they don't have the ball as often? Well, you might — might! — have a chance.
8. Who wins on Saturday?
Ah, yes. That question. Diving too deep into actual predictions can get silly, so I'll keep things short:
Yale 15, Penn State 14
Duke 13, Virginia 11
We get a rematch of last year's title game, and then things get crazy.