NCAA Lacrosse Tournament Participant: Denver

via laxbuzz.files.wordpress.com

Tournament Seed: 6

First-Round Opponent: Villanova (May 15, 5:15)

2011 Record: 13-2

Conference: ECAC

Last Tournament Appearance: 2010

NCAA Championships: 0

Four Notable Players: Mark Matthews (A); Alex Demopoulos (A); Steve Simonetti (D); Todd Baxter (A)*.

Downloadable Tempo-Free Profile: Denver

This is your tournament wildcard, people.  The Pioneers have only been truly tested three times this season and are 1-2 in those games (losses to Syracuse and Notre Dame; a win against Duke).  Yet, Denver has the look of a team that could totally snap and reign supreme, leaving a wake of destruction in its scorched-earth path. 

This is a team to watch because if you fail to recognize, they'll be sitting on the throne before you know it.

WHAT DENVER DOES WELL

If I told you a half-decade ago that Bill Tierney would be guiding one of the most potent offenses in the country rather than one of the most impenetrable defenses in the country, you'd probably call me an idiot and slap me in the face. 

Well, jerkface, guess what? It's 2011 and Tierney is guiding one of the most lethal offensive machines in the land. 

DENVER'S OLD WEST GUN SHOW
METRIC VALUE RANK AVG.
Adjusted Offensive Efficiency 36.86 2 27.92
Shots Per Offensive Possession 1.11 8 1.00
Offensive Effective Shooting Percentage 32.50% 9 28.64%
Offensive Assist Rate 19.70 6 15.37
Offensive Extra-Man Opportunity Conversion Rate 41.54% 8 31.87%
Offensive Extra-Man Opportunity Reliance 0.14 20 0.13
Strength of Schedule -- Opposing Defenses 26.59 6 28.03
Face-Off Percentage 58.42% 12 49.79%
  • There's a lot of chatter in the ether that Denver has been untested this year and this is a reason to be wary about the Pioneers' chances in the show of shows.  Well, that's kind of bunk, at least when talking about Denver's offensive showcase this season.  The Pioneers have faced a schedule featuring some of the best defensive teams in the country.  In fact, Denver has faced five teams in the nation's top-20 in adjusted defensive efficiency -- Notre Dame (1), Syracuse (2), Ohio State (7), Fairfield (12), Duke (14), and Loyola (18).  The Pioneers' offense has performed very well (in the overall) against such a difficult defensive slate.
  • Good gracious, I love a team that shares the bean.  It creates such a complexity to a team's offense, and Denver really does a good job at prodding and poking at different areas in the attack box.  On the season, the Pioneers have five guys in the top-145 nationally in individual offensive assist rate (assists per 100 offensive possessions) -- Demopoulos, Matthews, Baxter, Eric Law, and Cameron Flint.  Five!  That doesn't even include Jeremy Noble who would also be included in the top-145 nationally if he had met the rankings inclusion standards.  That's a ridiculous number of guys that can help beat a defense and it's arguably the biggest reason that Denver is bombarding opponents when they have the ball.  The loss of Baxter has the potential to diminish the Pioneers' ability to spread the ball around, but it's not like the attackman was all alone in carrying the team's offensive feeding responsibilities.
  • With the amount of helpers that Denver is providing, it's no surprise that the Pioneers are shooting the ball almost as well as anyone in the country.  When you can get dodge-to-doorstep looks and dodge-to-preferred-shooting-position looks, you're simply going to embarrass goalkeepers night-in and night-out.  Of Denver's five offensive players in the top-200 in "Total Offensive Value" (individual points per 100 offensive possessions), all but Flint are canning the bean at 30% or better.  Matthews, Demopoulos, and Baxter are above the 35% mark with Baxter leading the way at 43%.  These guys are built to shoot, and when they receive the ball in hands-free positions they can really light up the cage.
  • Just a quick note on Denver's shot volume: Woah.  Where I think you see a lot of shot volume from Denver is not necessarily when they're working from behind the cage and from goal line extended.  Where you're seeing the volume is from dodges from up top and when Mark Matthews is going one-on-one, bombing away from 10-to-15 yards and backing down his defender with his size a la Ian Dingman from Navy a few years back. Unlike a lot of teams with high shot volume, Denver isn't struggling at converting those shots into tallies; their effective shooting percentage is still through the roof. Opposing defenses and keepers are just in a tough position when facing the Pioneers: You need to keep your head on a swivel to mark off-ball movement, but if you do Denver has no problem filling up the cage with shots.  It's a lose-lose situation for the opposition.
  • Similar to Virginia, Denver has been astounding with the extra attacker this year (in no small part due to their offensive strategy of multiplicity).  Unlike the Cavaliers, though, the Pioneers aren't relying on their extra-man unit as much to generate tallies.  It's a dangerous unit, but Denver is getting all kinds of value from its six-on-six offense and, occasionally, in transition.  (This isn't a pure transition team. They'll go when they can, but they're happy to play at a pretty average pace.) 

WHAT DENVER DOES POORLY

The Pioneers aren't rolling with the best man-down unit around.  Now, this isn't a huge problem considering the fact that Denver is rarely playing with five defenders: Only 14 teams take fewer penalties per possession than the Pioneers and only 11 teams are in a man-down scenario less than Denver.

When Tierney's guys are in man-down, though, it isn't all that pretty:

MAN-DOWN: WE NEED REINFORCEMENTS
METRIC VALUE RANK AVG.
Defensive Extra-Man Opportunity Conversion Rate 38.30% 51 31.48%
Defensive Extra-Man Opportunity Reliance 0.15 40 0.13
Strength of Schedule -- Opposing Offenses 27.76 39 28.16
Shots Per Defensive Possession 1.05 44 1.00
Defensive Saves Per Possession 0.35 6 0.31
  • I don't think there needs to be a lot written here: Denver has been bad on man-down and opponents are somewhat relying on these situations to score against the Pioneers.  What's a little concerning is that Denver has put together its man-down performance against some pretty average-to-below-average opposing offenses.  That's not a particularly good sign.
  • Part of the reason that Denver is weak in the personnel imbalance is that the Pioneers have a defensive style similar to that of Hopkins and Hofstra: They're willing to yield shots and let their keeper make saves. The chart shows you that only five teams are ending defensive possessions more than the Pioneers with a stop from between the pipes.  This isn't a huge problem for Denver as Jamie Faus, their keeper, is stopping about 58% of the shots he's seeing. Where this gets the Pioneers into trouble is when they're forced to play with five: You lose that extra guy to mark off-ball movement and get his hands on a shooter.  That puts additional pressure on Faus to stop a shot from a preferred position.  In the overall, the defensive methodology works fine (Denver is 19th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency), but in the man-down it has burned them a bit.

OUTLOOK

Personally, I have Denver going to the Final Four. This offense is as good as any, and it's hard to bet against Tierney's defense in the month of May. This is a team with muted deficiencies, but the explosiveness of the offense can lead a charge to Memorial Day Weekend.

* Baxter suffered a leg injury in the ECAC Tournament finals against Fairfield last weekend.  The team's third-leading scorer underwent an MRI on Monday and his status for this weekend -- and beyond -- is currently unknown.

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