I'm not ashamed to admit that I'm a card carrying member of the "Rob Pannell for Emperor of Earth (Non-Robot Candidate) Party." The guy is a war machine with an armament that few in Division I -- not just currently, but historically -- can match, and it comes with a generation blueprint that makes you respect his efforts even more: a cockamamie recruiting process that had him commit to Quinnipiac, do a post-graduate year at Deerfield Academy and finally end up at Cornell; the heartbreak in the 2009 national championship against Syracuse, a game that Cornell had in the bag and the closest that Pannell has come to touching a national title; a monster season in 2011 that saw Steele Stanwick steal the Tewaaraton Trophy from him, a fact that I still can't reconcile completely in my noggin; and an aborted 2012 campaign due to a flat tire that derailed what could have been a special season for the attack individually and for the Big Red as a whole.
How can you not get behind a guy that has gone through all this -- a player that holds in his hands a large part of his team's overall success -- and not want him to achieve awesome things that result in statues and songs that are played on record players? You can't, unless you're a heartless heathen that doesn't like anything other than being miserable all the damn time.
This is the background to what could be an interesting chase for Pannell in 2013. While team goals are likely paramount to any individual honors, Pannell is on the cusp of memorialized individual greatness: If the attack can generate 101 points this year, he'll tie Duke's Matt Danowski as the NCAA's all-time career points leader.* While curmudgeons may deride Pannell's potential accomplishment as they did Danowski back in 2008 -- the entire fifth-year thing gets overplayed, and it smacks of ungratefulness to the achievement -- the fact remains that Pannell could cement himself in the history books as one of the most productive players in the NCAA Tournament era.
The question, then, is whether Pannell can do it. There have only been six players since 1971 that have generated at least 101 points in a season -- Chet Nowak (Air Force, 101 (1981)); Tim Nelson (Syracuse, 103 (1984)); Mike French (Cornell, 105 (1976)); Joe Vasta (Air Force, 108 (1986)); John Grant Jr. (Delaware, 110 (1999)); and Steve Marohl (UMBC, 114 (1992)). There isn't a great history of players breaking the barrier, and only Junior accomplished the feat in the ultra-modern era of the game (featuring stronger competition throughout the nation and the onus of creating offense against newfangled zone and slide packages from opposing defenses).
Pannell, though, maintains a lot of the qualities of the guys that he is attempting to join in the record book: The ability to score and spread offense, as well as serving as a pivot point for the offense in totem. What may hold Pannell back from going triple digits in points is probably a combination of a few things:
- How quickly can Pannell get back into Division I game shape? He looked good in club events this year, but the grind and physical requirements of college lacrosse is incessant and unique. A slow start could curb Pannell's ability to get his generation going at normal Pannell levels (which is lethal).
- Cornell isn't exactly playing a bunch of cupcakes this season, and games against Colgate, Virginia, Syracuse, and others will require Pannell to operate at a high level for 60 minutes of play. These are hard tests, and points don't come easy against solid defenses keying on Pannell from the opening whistle to the final gun.
- It's unclear whether Cornell will run Pannell full-time against some of the Red's weaker opponents in which Cornell is holding strong leads. This will turn on: 1) Pannell's health, which is a paramount concern above all other; and 2) Cornell's likely decision not to embarrass opponents that are getting face-smashed. These lost opportunities may hamper the pursuit for 353 points.
- The Red have lots of offensive options this year. While Pannell will surely act as a hub to the team's offense, there are secondary opportunities that Cornell may seek to exploit due to the attention that Pannell draws in order to make the scoreboard blink. Basically, the number of options that the Big Red have may diminish Pannell's need -- or requirement -- to make things work. That's great for Cornell as a team and its overall chances at victory; it's unclear, but possibly a deterrent, to Pannell getting all the points necessary to put him at the top of the table.
- Counting the Ivy League Tournament (assuming Cornell goes to the title game), Pannell would need to average 6.3 points per game to get to 101 points; counting one game in the NCAA Tournament, Pannell would need to average 5.9 points per game. This is a difficult task to accomplish, but it's not impossible -- 20 players since 1971 have averaged at least 6.54 points per game (none since Marohl's 1992 campaign, however) and Peter Baum -- Pannell's contemporary peer and 2012 Tewaaraton Trophy winner -- averaged 5.39 points per game last season while generating 97 points. This volume of point production is not unheard of, but it's also uncommon given the game-in and game-out need to produce points.
I don't know if Pannell ends up as the NCAA's all-time points leader, but it's going to be a blast to watch him pursue it (even if he's pursuing it subconsciously).
* A man hug to Matt Forman at Lacrosse Magazine for catching that fact.