Possession Margin: 2011 NCAA Lacrosse Tournament Quarterfinalists (Foxborough Region)

via images.lax.com

In case you missed the essay on the Hempstead region, I'm asking two kinds of questions about the NCAA Tournament quarterfinalists with respect to possession margin (the difference between offensive possessions per game and defensive possessions per game):

  1. How these teams are generating their possession margin; and
  2. Whether these teams' possession margins per game are significantly important to their success on the field.

Everyone puts a huge emphasis on face-off play -- and deservedly so, at times -- but I'm not totally sold that all of these teams need to dominate draws in order to be successful.

MARYLAND

Possession Margin Per Game: 6.0 (3)
Face-Off Percentage: 60.61% (7)
Clearing Percentage: 89.62% (5)
Riding Percentage: 82.24% (28)

How is Maryland Generating Possessions?

While Johns Hopkins and Maryland aren't exactly mirror images of each other, they go about their possession generation activity similarly in that each team really does a good job at the "x"; moreso, each team actually relies on their draw play to get the ball into the hands of their offensive unit. The Terrapins' high face-off win percentage is almost exclusively due to Curtis Holmes' performance at the dot: He's winning 62% of his attempts and has taken almost 94% of Maryland's draws this year.  He's almost single-handedly tilting the possession margin in the Terrapins' favor.

The other piece of the puzzle here is that Maryland isn't giving their opponents a quick extra offensive possession.  When in a clearing position, the Terrapins are getting the ball into their attack box as well as anyone in the country.  This is limiting those broken clearing attempts that generate a quick defensive possession that often result in an immediate socre.  You know, the kind of things that Virginia has capitalized on all year.

How Important is Maryland's Possession Margin to Their Success?

With a pretty efficient offense, this looks a lot like Hopkins' situation: With the extra offensive possessions, Maryland can blow open a tight game and win it 10-5 instead of 7-5 because of the efficiency of their offensive unit (the Terrapins are 11th in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency.)

For Maryland, though, I think there's something else in play.  The Terrapins are only playing about 61 total possessions per game.  That's 51st nationally in terms of tempo. What dominating the possession margin means for Maryland is that the 'Terps can really extend their offensive possessions and control the pace of play.  In short, it gives them more opportunities to run their pick-happy offense that has resulted in the second-highest offensive assist rate in the country. So, for Maryland, getting a heavy possession margin usually means that they can control the pace of play, and when they can control the pace of play they can let their offense do what needs to be done.

I guess the last consideration here is that the heavy possession margin has allowed Maryland to limit its defensive exposure on the season (only one team plays fewer defensive possessions per game than the Terrapins). To me, this isn't a significant consideration, however, as Maryland is rolling with a defense that is ranked 10th in adjusted defensive efficiency.  That Terrapins defense could get the job done even if it had to play two or three more possessions per outing. 

SYRACUSE

Possession Margin Per Game: 3.7 (11)
Face-Off Percentage: 49.42% (33)
Clearing Percentage: 91.67% (1)
Riding Percentage: 80.36% (14)

How is Syracuse Generating Possessions?

The Orange aren't doing it from the dot, that's for sure.  Where Syracuse is making its money is on the ride and on the clear. With John Galloway throwing marksman-like bombs from the crease to streaking midfielders, Syracuse is getting transitional clearing opportunities that are essentially unsettled situations that lead to opportunistic scoring chances.  The Orange has done a nice job at converting in those spots this season.  Syracuse's other benefit from their terrific clearing game is that the Orange aren't giving a half-field offensive possession that puts their defense in a tough position to kill a scoring opportunity. 

The other piece of the puzzle is the ride.  This is not unlike Virginia and Cornell: Syracuse is doing a good job at smashing opposing team's clearing attempts and, as a result, is creating unsettled transition opportunities. With these opportunities, the Orange are converting well. With the conversion, there isn't an immediate defensive possession that always follows; rather, play moves to the draw to establish a new set of possessions.  This is how the margin for Syracuse is ballooning.

How Important is Syracuse's Possession Margin to Their Success?

From a defensive perspective it has had little impact.  The Orange play about 33 defensive possessions per game, which is 31st-most in the country.  Yet, despite the high number of defensive possessions, nobody is sccoring on the Orange: Syracuse is first nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency.  This defensive unit is tremendous, and they're shutting everyone down, whether the opponent has a high or low quantity of opportunities.

From an offensive perspective, it is a bit of a concern.  While the Syracuse offensive unit has improved throughout the season (in no small part due to the contributions of Tom Palasek), it still relies on offensive volume to score.  The team is 15th in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency but has an offensive effective shooting percentage that ranks around 18th in the nation.  This isn't a deadly shooting team and when an opposing goalie gets hot -- like Siena's Tom Morr did on Sunday -- the Orange offense can struggle.  In these circumstances, Syracuse really needs to have a lot of offensive possessions in order to make the lights flicker on the scoreboard.

DUKE

Possession Margin Per Game: 1.1 (27)
Face-Off Percentage: 52.64% (21)
Clearing Percentage: 84.52% (25)
Riding Percentage: 78.11% (7)

How is Duke Generating Possessions?

This is a misleading question for the Blue Devils as they're approaching a possession margin deficiency.  You aren't going to mistake Duke for a great face-off or clearing team; they're only hanging out toward the back of the top-third in the country in both measures.  Where the Blue Devils are making some hay is on the ride.  If you want to know why that is impacting their possession margin, just mosey on up to the Syracuse discussion.

How Important is Duke's Possession Margin to Their Success?

Not very, apparently, given the fact that Duke is 13-5, won the regular season ACC crown, and are a trendy pick to hoist the national championship trophy.

Where the Blue Devils run into trouble (with respect to possession margin) is when their defense is having a rough go of it.  On the year, Duke is 18th in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency.  That's pretty good, but it's certainly not elite.  As defensive possession volume starts to increase when Duke can't get the ball into the hands of their offense, the Blue Devils are exposed to really giving up some tallies.  This happened a little bit on Saturday when Delaware made a run at Duke down in Durham.  This snowball effect isn't all that uncommon for a Duke team that can really fly when their offense has the ball and is bombing away from the attack box. 

NOTRE DAME

Possession Margin Per Game: 1.0 (28)
Face-Off Percentage: 54.65% (18)
Clearing Percentage: 89.12% (6)
Riding Percentage: 88.54% (58)

How is Notre Dame Generating Possessions?

Magically?  Again, like Duke, the premise question is a little misleading as the Irish aren't exactly doing a great job at creating additional offensive possessions for themselves.

If you were to point to two metrics, it'd be face-offs (a combination of Jake Marmul and Liam O'Connor have handled the duties for Notre Dame this year) and the team's surprisingly high clearing rate.  I say that it's surprisingly high because the Irish don't always make it look easy getting it out of their own end.  I've already written dozens of words on why this is impacting a team's possession margin so I'll spare you the recitation.

Very quickly, though, on Notre Dame's ride: It's nonexistent. This is in lockstep with Notre Dame's desire to win with defense and protect John Kemp in the cage.  The Irish have really embraced the retreat and have allowed their six defensive guys to take care of business on their end; a full-field ride that impacts the team's ability to quickly substitute its defensive midfielders potentially creates exposure that Notre Dame isn't exactly clamoring for.

How Important is Notre Dame's Possession Margin to Their Success?

From a defensive perspective, I would say there's little impact. The Irish are currently second in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency.  That unit can play a few extra possessions per game and aren't likely to yield scores.  This is buttressed a bit by the fact that Notre Dame isn't playing a ridiculously low number of defensive possessions per game.  (As it stands currently, only 12 teams actually play fewer defensive possessions per 60 minutes than the Irish.)  This defense can absorb extra exposure.

Where the possession margin ultimately helps Notre Dame is with the Irish's offense and in how they can control the pace of play.  Only 13 teams play fewer total possessions per game than Notre Dame and the Irish really like to grind tempo down and extend their offensive possessions.  If the Irish are controlling the possession margin, they can make this happen without mitigation.

With respect to the team's offense, it is, in many ways, volume driven.  This isn't an offensive unit that shoots particularly well (they're only 32nd in the country in offensive effective shooting percentage); they also bomb away as much as anyone in the country (they're sixth-nationally in shots per offensive possessions).  So, while the Irish are 13th in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency, they still rely on quantity and volume to get tallies on the board.  If a hot goaltender steps in their way, Notre Dame can sink pretty quick.  The Irish's game against Syracuse was a great example of that.

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