Here we are. After a season full of many twists and turns and many crazy stops along a winding road, the college lacrosse season has just one stop left: The National Championship. Contesting it will be the No. 4 seed Denver Pioneers, looking to become the first team west of the Mississippi River to ever win an NCAA Championship, and the No. 6 seed Maryland Terrapins, who are seeking the program's first national title since 1975. These are two teams who have played in the Final Four four times each this decade. They know what it's like to have their season end as the season ends. Neither team wants that feeling. They want the feeling of a national championship victory. And we are set up for one very intriguing championship game.
Your game time is 1 PM ET Monday and the game will be televised on ESPN2.
Denver is an offensive dynamo. They're one of the most dangerous offenses in the country and have been ever since Bill Tierney became the coach out in Colorado. Efficiency is the name of the game for them. They convert on 42% of their possessions, which is good for 2nd in the nation. Their shooting percentage is 36%, 3rd in the country. They only turn the ball over 12 times a game, the 8th best mark in college lacrosse. Everything is so meticulous and so sharp with the Pios. They emphasize moving the ball in and out of the sticks in three seconds. The ball gets stuck in your stick, you get stuck on the bench. But that doesn't mean they go fast. The system preaches patience. Outside shots are almost non-existent, alley dodges to score are rare. Shots near the crease, back side passes for scores, and high percentage shots are emphasized. When the offense is as skilled as this one is it works to perfection. They have a lot of crafty Canadians who can find space inside for scores. They have midfielders capable of inverting. Speedsters from behind who can burn you. It's an offense with nearly no weakness. The two weaknesses it has are what Maryland will need to exploit.
One weakness is that against great defenses Denver sometimes has problem winning individual match-ups. As mentioned above, they don't tell a player to "go dodge down the alley and score us a goal." Or "make a defense splitting pass to the doorstep." Once they get you on a string and drag you out of position, then they'll make the killer feed for an easy goal. Maryland is a defense that this season has on occasion struggled with it's slides and containing shooters from the outside. They are very good at covering men inside and staying very close to their attackmen. They don't often get roll dodged inside or get burned from behind by a fast attackmen from behind. They'e not looking to force a turnover, they are looking to make you shoot a bad shot. It's a match-up that could be rather fortuitous for the Terps. Also, in games against teams with an offensive efficiency that ranks among the top 20 teams in the country, Maryland only gives up an average of nine goals per game.
The second area that must be exploited by Maryland if they are to stop this high-octane Denver attack comes at the face-off X. Trevor Baptiste is the best face-off man in the land. He wins upwards of 69% or so of his draws. He's also a threat to score off draws as evidence by his eight goals and thirteen points on the season. He's simply very, very good. Much like Charlie Raffa for Maryland, his draws are so important for his team. So much more important than in any other area in which you can generate possessions. Denver is in the bottom ten of the country in possessions generated from their clear or a failed clear by the other team. No one generates more possessions off face-offs than the Pios do. They need Baptiste to win face-offs. If he's not winning them it is hard to see how Denver gets the ball. Especially with a defense that ranks 50th in Adjusted Efficiency and has given up an average of 13 goals per game in games against NCAA Tournament opposition. Charlie Raffa is always so important for Maryland in terms of getting the Terps the possessions they crave so much and his impact from an emotional standpoint. He'll also be incredibly important in keeping that Denver offense off the field.
In all three games so far in the NCAA Tournament Maryland's offensive players have been very good at being both a threat to score and feed. Matt Rambo has six goals and six assists. Joe LoCascio has four goals and five assists. Bryan Cole has turned in an unexpected seven goals while also helping on three goals. Jay Carlson has two assists and has impacted games beyond his usual operating spot of inside and near the crease. When the offense has struggled this year, it's been when Maryland's players are locked into their set role on the field. The midfielders can only really shoot, the attackmen can't draw slides and pass effectively enough. Being one-dimensional creates an offense that's rigid and can't be loose. In the tournament Maryland's offense has looked loose and sharp. Their sets are being executed very effectively. In the championship game, they'll need that passing from Rambo in the attack and Cole when he inverts - a midfielder playing below the goal line as an attackmen. That is because Denver has shown a real lack of guarding midfielders in the NCAA Tournament. Nine of Notre Dame's 10 goals in the National Semifinal between the two teams came from the midfield. Nine of Ohio State's 13 in a quarterfinal game came from the Buckeye midfielders. In the Notre Dame game in particular a lot of those came from individual dodges. Joe LoCascio could have a big day in that regard. But the feeding from behind could create some looks from Henry West as well and potentially Matt Rambo when he operates more from the top of the box as opposed to down low.
This title game is one with plenty of storylines. Both from a history perspective and on the field. It's very intriguing. Can I guarantee it will be a great game? No. It has a bit of potential to be a slow, ponderous game. It also has the potential to be incredibly tight and nerve-wracking with lots of momentum swings. We'll just have to wait and see.