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NCAA Men's Lacrosse Tournament Final Four Preview

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A preview of the Men's Lacrosse Final Four this weekend in Philadelphia

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

It seems as if just yesterday the college lacrosse season was beginning, with snow on the ground (yes, this is a complaint about the fact we start the season in February). Now it's May, and the Final Four will take place this weekend with temperatures reaching 80 and maybe even 90 degrees. But enough about weather. This NCAA Tournament has created an incredible dichotomy between the upper and bottom parts of the bracket and that holds true with Championship Weekend. On the top half we have two western powers seeking a first national title - Notre Dame and Denver. On the bottom half we have two legendary rivals who are located in one of the sports true hotbeds - Maryland and Johns Hopkins. Both games bring plenty of story lines and will hopefully bring some excitement as well. Let's check out the times and teams.

National Semifinals

When: Saturday, May 23rd, 2015. 1st SF is 1:00 PM ET. 2nd SF is 3:30 PM ET.

Where: Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia PA.

TV/Online Streaming: ESPN2/WatchESPN

National Championship

When: Monday, May 25th, 1:00 PM ET

Where: Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia PA.

TV/Online Streaming: ESPN2/ESPNU (Sky Cam)/WatchESPN

Teams

Seed Team Record Quality Wins Bad Losses
1 Notre Dame 12-2 Virginia, Ohio State, Syracuse, Duke, North Carolina, Albany None
4 Denver 15-2 Duke, Notre Dame, Brown, Ohio State None
6 Maryland 14-3 North Carolina, Ohio State, Yale None
U Johns Hopkins 11-6 Maryland, Ohio State, Virginia, Syracuse None

Match-Ups

No. 1 Notre Dame vs No. 4 Denver - 1:00 PM ET, ESPN2: Which Western power comes one step closer to title #1?

Notre Dame and Denver are college lacrosse's Western outposts. Yes, Notre Dame is only in Indiana, but in the college lacrosse world that might as well be Nevada. No school West of the Mississippi has ever won an NCAA title. 32 of the 44 NCAA Championships that have been played have been won by a school in Maryland or New York. These two have been the biggest schools outside of those hot beds, or outside the ACC, that's made their mark on the sport. Notre Dame is in it's 5th Final Four and 4th this decade. Denver has made the Final Four three years running and have been to Championship Weekend four times in the last five seasons. All that's left for these two schools is to lift the trophy on Memorial Day. Here's how they'll plan to do it.

Notre Dame's balance is really what makes them so good. Previously known as a defensive power and a program built on it's toughness and incredible goaltending, the Irish now boast a superb offense to go with it. Matt Kavanagh is a Tewaaraton nominee and has 27 G's, 24 A's and a total of 51 points. Senior Conor Doyle who's the conductor of the offense has posted a 30-20-50 campaign. And then there's Freshmen Mikey Wynne rounding out the attack with 33 goals. Doyle is terrific at dodging from behind the cage but can also shoot from the outside. Kavanagh's a do everything attackmen and a true match-up nightmare with his speed and ability to score from anywhere. Wynne's the crease monkey who's always there inside for slam dunks or rebounds. It's a well rounded unit that can hurt you from anywhere.

The midfield is nothing to snuff at either. Sergio Perkovic is a match-up nightmare at 6-4, 220 lb. He's got a combination of speed and ability to lower the shoulder when dodging that can frighten any defender. Nick Ossello's a great two way player who occasionally takes face-offs. Those two have combined for 50 goals on the season.

Perhaps the great beauty of the Irish offense is how the offense is so methodical and rarely turns it over while also playing pretty fast. They're 9th in the nation in Estimated Pace. Jack Near, their Short Stick Defensive Midfielder, is great at leading fastbreaks as well. There's simply nothing they can't do on offense, and when you add that to a defense that's second in Adjusted Efficiency...you have yourself a tremendous lacrosse team.

Denver isn't quite as well balanced, but they do two things so incredibly well it makes up for any weaknesses you may find. The first thing is their offense. They score goals. Lots of them. An average of 14 per game to be exact. And they are so incredibly efficient. Nearly every shot is assisted. Nearly every shot is a slam dunk. They have so few shots on their possessions because they are always scoring with them. Don't be fooled, though. Denver doesn't play fast. They play slower than Maryland. The root of the beauty is how exact they are with every single detail. How every shot is a high percentage one. The stats are mind blowing. 2nd in Efficiency. 3rd in Shooting Rate. 4th in Assist Rate. Two Pios have over 70 points this year. Connor Cannizzaro - yeah, that guy who was awesome for Maryland last year - has 55 goals and 33 assists. 88 points! He's not even the Tewaaraton nominee on his team. That'd be Wes Berg. 50 goals and 70 points. Tyler Pace and Erik Adamson have 86 points from the midfield. Pace is forever upon on the crease for slam dunks and Adamson is a tremendous shooter and one of their best pure scorers. Those guy sometimes get lost in the shuffle. This offense is unfathomably good. They're never out of a game with those guys.

Despite all that about Denver's offense though....none of those guys may be their most important player. That may be Trevor Baptiste. Baptiste is #1 in Face-off Win Percentage and wins draws at over a 70% clip. He won 16/23 in the first meeting between Denver and Notre Dame - an 11-10 Pios win. He's scored eight goals this year directly from face-off wins. He gives them a monstrous possession edge. They have nearly 10 more possessions per game than their opponent and it's because of Baptiste. In a game that figures to have 30 or so face-offs, Baptiste will win at least 20. He once won 28 out of 30 in a game. Those extra possessions could be the difference in what figures to be a tight game.

These two are evenly matched. Both boast tremendous offenses. Notre Dame has a better defense, but Denver compensates from hardly ever playing defense. It's a game you won't want to miss.

No. 6 Maryland vs Johns Hopkins - 3:30 PM ET, ESPN2: Can Maryland get one step closer to ending it's 40 year duck? Can Hopkins end a seven year wait for a shot at the title?

Saturday's 1st semifinal as explained above is a battle between new money schools looking to leave their mark on the sport. Saturday's 2nd semifinal is two bluebloods squaring off looking to assert state dominance and gain the ultimate bragging rights. For Maryland, they know and have heard the noise. 40 years. Somehow it has been 40 years since the Terrapins have won a National Championship. 17 trips to Championship Weekend and 7 runner-up finishes have since passed. Here they are again. The 2015 Terps look to add a 3rd title to the program's cabinet and write their place as maybe not the best, but the greatest Maryland Lacrosse team in nearly half a century. On the other side is their arch rival. The Johns Hopkins Blue Jays. Perhaps college lacrosse's signature program. One of the two most successful program's in the sport's history. Nine NCAA Championships. Now 29 Final Fours. But JHU's last trip to Memorial Day was 2008. That feels like decades for the people on Charles Street. This Blue Jays team is seeking to complete an improbable run with a title.

Maryland's defense is still the driving force for this team. After holding Yale scoreless for 14:30 minutes in the final frame in their first round win, they turned in a virtuoso performance to hold North Carolina to just seven goals and only two at halftime. They've found themselves again after struggles late in the season. And despite the fact that the offense's ability to dictate tempo and score nine first half goals may have been the determining factor in the Carolina blowout, this defense will be perhaps the main difference for Maryland on Saturday, only behind Charlie Raffa at the face-off X. It's 1st in Scoring Defense. 1st in Efficiency. 2nd in Shooting Rate (how teams shoot against the Terps D). Kyle Bernlohr is 3rd in the country in Sv% and by far the best goalie left. How they do against Hopkins will determine what the Terps offense must do. If they can turn in a low scoring game, the less likely the game morphs into a shootout or track meet where the Blue Jays have the Terps beat. They gave up 15 to JHU in the first meeting. Maryland's offense wasn't built for that. In the 4th Quarter, even though they often didn't have the ball, you could tell. A low scoring game impacts the tempo Maryland plays at.

How do the Terps do that? It does start with stopping the pick game the Stanwicks - Wells and Shack - run so well. They can't get hung up - having an opposing player alone behind the cage with the defender in front of the goal -, can't take bad angles when they try to run picks or screens, and must push them away from the cage. Matt Dunn was tremendous at this when going up against Joey Sankey who's arguably faster than Wells and Shack. He must be again on Wells. But it goes well beyond that. Maryland did a good job on Wells Stanwick in the first game. The pick game wasn't consequential. The big key is stopping Ryan Brown. Brown's the best shooter in college lacrosse. It's not easy. He'll let rip from anywhere, any angle, use any shooting form....it doesn't matter. Result is that the ball ends up in the net. But you can limit him if you close off on him. This is where slides come into play. Towards the end of the season Maryland's defense was far too quick to slide to an open player and just not sharp enough with any of their slides. This left them prone to shooters from the outside burning them. Brown did just that, scoring eight against UMD. JHU's middies scored five in the win, three more than the Stanwick brothers combined.

On offense, Maryland will need to keep up the secondary scoring they've been getting. Bryan Cole has averaged four points per contest in the last four games, the most on the team. Connor Kelly had a hat trick against UNC. Beyond the usual suspects of Rambo, Carlson, and especially now Joe LoCascio who's morphed into a true field general for this offense, Maryland will need those secondary players to step up to have a successful weekend.

I don't think I need to speak to Charlie Raffa's importance. Everyone knows it.

For Hopkins, what has sparked this change has come on the defensive end. In their last four games they've only given up 9.25 goals per game. This has without question been their best run defensively of the season. And it's eased the pressure on the Blue Jays offense, which has scored 35 goals in the postseason up to this point. Much of it has come from the play of Eric Schneider. The Senior goalie boasted a porous save% for much of the year but has made 50 saves in JHU's last four wins. He was incredible in particular against Syracuse. If he can turn in another sterling effort against Maryland, with likely 1st Team All American Kyle Bernlohr in cage for the Terps, it's a big swing in the Jays favor due to their higher ceiling on the offensive end.

Face-offs could also be a key factor for the Blue Jays. In the first meeting between these two teams Hunter Moreland had an incredible 4th Quarter, winning 7-8 draws. This was what sparked the six goal quarter for Hop, and awoke their offense after a quiet 3rd Quarter. JHU doesn't need face-offs to score, but Maryland wants all the possessions it can get. They'll look to make it more of a 10-9 game as opposed to a 15-14 game. This'll come from Raffa at the X, who's rounding into form. Moreland may need to have another big 4th Quarter for Hop.

It's two arch-rivals. Two streaks that desperately want to be broken. The Final Four. Not a better stage for Maryland-Hopkins and not many games could provide better storylines.