Denver Pioneers: 13-2, #6 Seed, 4-0 last four games (11-9 victory over Fairfield to win the ECAC crown and close out the 2011 season)
Leading Scorer: Jr. Mark Matthews, 41 goals, 21 assists
Villanova Wildcats: 11-4, At-Large Selection, 3-1 last four games (Finished the season with an 11-9 loss to the Georgetown Hoyas playing without leading scorer Kevin Cunningham)
Leading Scorer: Jr. Kevin Cunningham, 23 g, 17 a
The Villanova Wildcats sat on pins and needles on Sunday as they were part of the last group of teams to be selected for the 2011 NCAA Tournament. With a very strong RPI and strength of schedule, there was no doubt in my mind the Wildcats would be in. I did, however, question where and who they will be playing.
Coach Michael Corrado and his squad have the fun task of traveling to Denver, Colorado, and taking on Bill Tierney's Pioneers squad. Both teams will play in the first-ever NCAA Tournament game played west of the Mississippi River.
The Pioneers have come a long way since their season opening loss to the Syracuse Orange. Going 13-1 down the stretch, the Pioneers quietly finished the season with only two losses and a top-five ranking. Some will say their conference schedule is what keeps their talent under wraps, but Tierney isn't afraid to put the big dogs on his schedule and a mid-season win against Duke really got the Pioneers some national attention.
Matthews is the "go-to" guy for the Pioneers offense. The 6'4" attackman from Ontario, Canada plays like Maryland sniper Grant Catalino. He is a bit over-sized for the attack position at 6'4" but you will often see him running as a midfielder, or using his size to create havoc all over the field. Think of Matthews like a Dan Hardy, someone who has the ability to play from behind the net and up top.
The entire attack unit for Tierney is very impressive. Junior Alex Demopoulos had a very balanced season scoring 27 goals and assisting on 25. Third attackman and team captain Todd Baxter may miss Saturday's game due to an ankle and knee injury that happened with just over a minute to go in the ECAC final against Fairfield.
If Baxter can't go, look for sophomore Eric Law to move down from midfield to attack. Law played attack all of last season for Division III's Salisbury Sea Gulls. In 2011, Law has 13 goals and 10 assists playing on the first midfield unit.
Also on that first unit is do-it-all midfielder Chase Carraro. Carraro had 18 goals and two assists as well as being the team's primary face-off man. Not only can Carraro score, but he picked up a team high 91 groundballs.
It will be a very tough task for the Wildcat defense to try and contain the Pioneers offense. Averaging close to 13 goals per game, the Pioneers will come at you from many different directions and parts of the field. Unlike the Wildcats, the Pioneers offense can score from both the midfield and the attack.
One of the prime matchups will be watching Wildcat player of the year Brian Karalunas take on Pioneers leading midfielder Cameron Flint. Flint is a crafty midfielder who is a pure athlete. Flint had a chance to go pro in hockey, but chose to play lacrosse instead.
Karalunas is one of the most underrated players in the nation. His 2011 numbers are unreal and he proved to the entire nation just why he was chosen as the pre-season long stick midfielder of the year for the Big East Conference. Scooping up 71 groundballs on the year and causing 68 turnovers, Karalunas caused fits for the opposing offense week-in and week-out. Just ask the Syracuse Orange.
Defensemen Chris Creighton and Chris Ficke must play bigger against a guy like Matthews. Matthews has the ability to back you down and also moves well without the ball.
As for the Villanova offense, they can bring it as well. Averaging just over 10 goals per game, the Wildcat offense has been paced by Cunningham and his fellow attack unit. Whether Cunningham plays is a huge key to watch leading up to Saturday.
Cunningham has been the quarterback of the Wildcat offense in 2011 and created a nice duo with sophomore Jack Rice. Rice was the finisher for the Wildcats, as he closed out 2011 with 32 goals.
Junior midfielder C.J. Small is the top threat to shoot the ball from outside. He put up 18 goals and had huge games in back-to-back weeks against Syracuse and Notre Dame (two goals in each game).
The Pioneers defense is giving up eight goals per game, which is enough to win in most games. We saw what the Fairfield Stags did against them in the fourth quarter, going on a six goal run to close out the game and nearly coming all the way back to tie the game at 11.
Keep in mind that game was in Denver where the altitude is supposed to play such a major role. Now, I'm not saying it does or it doesn't, what I am saying is Fairfield seemed to have almost enough gas left in the tank in that final quarter. Something to think about if you are Coach Tierney.
As of late, the Pioneers' saving grace has been their offense. Playing like a Syracuse team in the early 2000's, they may give up 10 goals, but they are going to score 12 or 13.
I personally don't think the Wildcats have the ability to put up double digits against the Pioneers.
Like every game in the 2011 NCAA Tournament, face-offs will be critical. Both teams come in boasting high win percentages from the face-off X. The Pioneers and their man Carraro won 58 percent of their face-offs. Carraro himself was 61 percent from the X.
For the Wildcats, they have an impressive duo in Nolan Vihlen (56%) and Thomas Croonquist (60%). Together they led the Wildcats to a win percentage of 57% from the X. Of course the Wildcats have Karalunas on the wings which is a key to the amount of possessions the Wildcats will have.
The last thing to check out is the play of each teams' goalie. The Pioneers are led by a freshman in the cage. Jamie Faus made 158 stops in 2011 and saved 58 percent of the shots he faced, most noticeably his 16 save performance against Duke on April 9th. Faus has a knack for playing his best in big games. Keep in mind this is his first ever NCAA Tournament game.
On the other side you have sophomore Billy Hurley. Hurley is a tall goalie at 6'2" and takes up a good amount of the cage. Hurley only had save percentage of 48% and was vulnerable against teams with strong attacks (most noticeably when Drexel attackmen Scott Perri and Brendan Glynn combined for 9 goals against Hurley on March 1).
When all is said and done, I take Denver to win this one and notch their first ever home playoff win by the score of 11-7. I see their attack just being to much for the Villanova defense and I think the home field advantage will play into it as well.