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Tuesday, May 8, 2012
Previewing lax tourney first round

By Quint Kessenich
ESPN.com

Canisius at No. 1 Loyola (Md.) (Saturday on ESPNU/ESPN3, 5 p.m. ET)
Loyola Canisius

The Greyhounds (14-1) are second nationally in possession advantage, earning 5.5 more possessions per game than their opponent. They clear the ball extremely well, commit few turnovers and take lots of shots. Mike Sawyer (45 goals, 8 assists) and Eric Lusby (37, 12) can scorch corners, but watching this team, you will notice that the two key players are LSM Scott Ratliff (9, 7) and midfielder Josh Hawkins.

Canisius (6-7) is the MAAC winner, having upset Siena in the title game to qualify for another NCAA tournament. The Golden Griffins (RPI No. 42) played at Syracuse in 2008. The MAAC has never won an NCAA tournament game. The biggest challenge will be generating enough possessions to keep this game close. Canisius has a minus-3 possession margin and turns the ball over frequently. Its extra-man offense has been a bright spot.

If Loyola stays out of the penalty box, it should advance to the quarterfinals in Annapolis, Md.

Denver at No. 8 North Carolina (Saturday on ESPNU/ESPN3, 7:30 p.m. ET)
UNC Denver

The Tar Heels (11-5) are dangerous when they capitalize on faceoffs and win the ground ball war. Since starting Marcus Holman, Joey Sankey and Jimmy Bitter on attack, they have played with terrific tempo and pace, generating lots of shots and turning the ball over less frequently. Their offense has excellent passers and relies on a deep stable of midfielders. They are 40-5 outside of the ACC under coach Joe Breschi. Their close defense can be riddled by ball movement, and goalie Steven Rastivo is unpredictable. I think they can score on Denver's young defense, but they aren't built to stop the Pioneers.

Denver was a championship weekend participant last year but struggled this season, losing close games. Coach Bill Tierney has done his best work in the month of May, winning six NCAA titles and playing in eight Final Fours. The Pioneers are 8-1 this spring when scoring more than 10 goals. Lefty Mark Matthews has 147 markers for his career, and UNC doesn't have a suitable matchup for the Canadian. Denver ranks fourth in faceoff efficiency and sixth in offense but struggles to clear the ball. Advancing the ball from defense to offense against Carolina's rug rats will be a challenge.

The most intriguing head-to-head matchup of the first round features a titanic struggle at the faceoff stripe between RG Keenan of UNC and Chase Carraro of Denver. This game should be action-packed and high scoring if the coaches don't press the brake. The under/over is 22.5 goals.

Princeton at No. 5 Virginia (Sunday on ESPNU/ESPN3, 1 p.m. ET)
UVa Princeton

Princeton (11-4) snuck in the tournament based on its RPI, leaving a more qualified Penn State team at home. Once again, the selection committee did not apply a consistent criteria to all teams. Wins over Villanova and Cornell and a split with Yale have left many fans shaking their heads. The Ivy League final was one of the most unathletic games I've seen all year.

The Tigers are slow, and that isn't a good matchup against Virginia. Princeton has some name players with goalie Tyler Fiorito, defender Chad Weidmaier and playmaker Tom Schrieber, but its foot soldiers and role players have underwhelmed against top-tier competition. The defense is highly rated, but the Ivy League didn't exactly tear it up this year. The Tigers' hopes for an upset hinge on goalie Tyler Fiorito and a patient offense.

Virginia wins the possession battle, averaging a plus-4.1 advantage per game. It has an excellent offense and average defense. It can switch from a man-to-man or 3-3 zone defense, but Princeton is a team I would never zone. The Tigers don't have explosive dodgers; make them score unassisted goals. Tewaaraton winner Steele Stanwick has averaged 4.9 points per game in 10 NCAA contests, and coach Dom Starsia is 33-14 in the tournament at UVa. Virginia had a bye May 5 during finals week, and should be fresh and ready to fire. The lack of depth -- it played only 20 players against Penn -- won't be a factor until the later rounds.

Yale at No. 4 Notre Dame (Sunday on ESPNU/ESPN3, 5:15 p.m. ET)
ND Yale

This game should be the slowest and lowest-scoring of the first round. The under/over is 15. Notre Dame (11-2) is coming off an ugly loss to St. John's, and Yale is flying high after beating Princeton in the Ivy League final.

The Fighting Irish make their seventh straight NCAA appearance by having the nation's toughest defense, forcing low-percentage shots and getting steady play from netminder John Kemp. He leads the nation in save percentage but has been exposed the past two games. He was overpowered by high heat against St. Johns and Syracuse. He is excellent down low and clutch with a 4-2 record in one-goal games this season. The offense grinds and grinds -- nothing comes easy -- and it doesn't rely on one star. Down the road, if the Fighting Irish can get to Memorial Day, having nine fresh-legged contributing midfielders could make a difference, but in a slow-tempo game, that depth is overrated.

Yale, which lost to Sacred Heart, can push the pace but played at a slower tempo in its Princeton win. It had an excellent plan, attacking the Tigers' defensive midfield, and jammed the ball inside with success. After four consecutive losses, including Sacred Heart (which lost to Wagner), Yale has caught fire, and you see it has a strong self-awareness of its strengths and style, a credit to coach Andy Shay.

Yale is smallish but quick. It wins faceoffs and is a very good ground ball team. It causes a lot of turnovers and generally is slow to slide. If Sacred Heart could beat Yale, I'm taking Notre Dame.

Syracuse at No. 3 Duke (Saturday on ESPN/ESPN3, noon ET)
Duke SU

Which Syracuse team will show up? The one that sputtered and struggled through a 7-7 regular season? Or the one that demolished Villanova and St. John's last week in the Big East tournament?

It appears as if the Orange have cleaned up the defense and the turnover problem, and freshman goalie Bobby Wardwell finally looked comfortable. Midfielder Bobby Eilers is confident and hitting the net, and the attack continues to make plays. Brian Megill will take draws in this game, effectively matching poles with Duke LSM CJ Costabile.

The Orange have qualified for 29 of the past 30 NCAA tournaments, and coach John Desko is 28-7 in the postseason. They must do a better job clamping down on Duke's strong-handed tendencies.

The Blue Devils are terrific when they are working hard to win the ground ball battles, staying out of the penalty box and dodging to their strong hands. They don't ride like they once did and didn't pass well during the first 10 games of the season. The defense has steadily improved.

Duke is 8-0 at home this season and 58-6 at Koskinen Stadium under John Danowski. This pairing is a very difficult assignment; Syracuse isn't exactly a reward for the No. 3 seed.

Colgate at No. 6 UMass (Saturday on ESPNU/ESPN3, 2:30 p.m. ET)
UMass Colgate

These two teams are a combined 28-3. UMass (15-0) will play with a chip on its shoulder as the undefeated No. 6 seed. Its 11 seniors get to play a final game on Garber Field and will be flying around with great passion. It's still hard to tell how good this team is. Its wins are over teams rated 16, 17, 19, 20 and 27 in the RPI. It did not play a single team in the tournament field.

That being said, coach Greg Cannella has made a run late into May. The team's stats are really solid. In the Minutemen's past 61 games, they are 58-3 when scoring more than 10 goals. They face off well, and scrap for ground ball and possession dominance (plus-3.9 per game), and goalie Tim McCormack makes saves at a high rate. Can Tom Celentani cover Peter Baum? If Colgate is hesitant to slide, Anthony Biscardi might be the key chess piece. One Achilles' heel would be an affinity for taking penalties, which will hurt against a Raiders EMO group that clicks at 50 percent.

First-year coach Mike Murphy has Colgate (13-3) playing fast. The Raiders score 13.56 goals per game, force lots of turnovers, ride well and are the No. 5-rated ground ball team. Peter Baum leads the nation in points. Freshman Ryan Walsh has hit the net 33 times, and underrated midfielder Jeff Ledwick has 44 points. Defensively, they are slow to slide.

This game will be a street fight, an entertaining slugfest for fans.

Maryland at No. 7 Lehigh (Sunday on ESPNU/ESPN3, 7:30 p.m. ET)
Lehigh Md.

If you like low-scoring defensive chess matches, this first-rounder might be for you. Lehigh (14-2) owns the No. 2-rated defense in the country. The Mountain Hawks slide to ball carriers the moment they step off the bus. Maryland ranks only 35th in assist ration; you must handle double teams to beat Lehigh.

The Mountain Hawks must stay out of the penalty box and handle their first trip to the NCAAs. Maryland (9-5) will respect Lehigh, having just lost to Colgate.

I like the Terps' midfield defense led by Landon Carr and Jesse Bernhardt, but their close defense continues to be shredded by capable attack units (Colgate, UVa, UNC). Can the Terps stop David DiMaria and Dante Fantoni? Maryland grinds opponents with extended possessions. It is an excellent ground ball team.

The under/over for total stall warnings is 10. Both teams are less than 50 percent at the faceoff stripe. Maryland goalie Niko Amato must be a difference-maker for the Terps to advance.

Stony Brook at No. 2 Johns Hopkins (Sunday on ESPNU/ESPN3, 3 p.m. ET)
JHU SB

Hopkins has qualified for 41 straight NCAA tournaments and might have received its most favorable draw of all time. Stony Brook (7-9) is the America East automatic qualifier after a 1-7 start.

The Blue Jays are a defense-first team. They rank No. 2 in adjusted defensive efficiency, No. 3 in possession margin and No. 1 in riding. They are plus-41 in turnovers but only plus-26 in ground balls. This game could get ugly because Hopkins is a strong faceoff team while Stony Brook is one of the worst (37.5 percent) in the nation. The Seawolves (minus-3.7 possession average) won't have nearly enough possessions to dent Hopkins' defense.

Blue Jays coach Dave Pietramala is 20-9 in the postseason. He will draw up a game plan to neutralize Stony Brook. The Seawolves did not beat a team with a winning record, owning an RPI of 35. All their stats are middle of the road or worse. Coach Jim Nagle and his team have been in nine one-goal games, going 3-6 in those contests. They actually clear the ball well, which will come in handy if Sean Brady, formerly of Duke, can make some stops.

This would be an upset of epic proportions.