2014 NCAA Lacrosse Tournament Preview: North Carolina at (5) Denver

Jim O'Connor-US PRESSWIRE

It's Championship Weekend quality on the first weekend of the tournament.

Everything that's worth knowing about North Carolina-Denver in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

From 10,000 Feet

Date and Time: Saturday, May 10, 2014 at 7:30 ET
Location: Denver, C.O.
Winner Advances To Play?: The winner of Drexel-Pennsylvania.
Television/Internet: ESPNU has the broadcast. Also available on WatchESPN.
Game "Fun Factor": 6.52 ("Great")
log5 Victory Probabilities:

log5 PROBABILITIES (AS OF MAY 5, 2014)
HOME AWAY FAVORITE UNDERDOG
Denver North Carolina North Carolina // 54.47% Denver // 45.53%

That's what the computing machine says. The game -- in reality -- is likely closer to a pure toss up with Carolina as a small favorite. The Tar Heels will need to deal with airplane legs, a sold out Peter Barton Stadium, and potential issues with possession-generation that the probability machine either is not fully considering or is undervaluing. There's a reason that this game got put in the primetime ESPNU slot on Saturday night: Things are going to explode.

What's Your Deal?

North Carolina
NCAA Tournament Appearances: 28 (Last: 2013)
NCAA Tournament Bid Type: At-Large (ACC)
Record: 10-4 (2-3, ACC)
Combustibles: Joey Sankey (A) (31G, 24A); Chad Tutton (M) (22G, 3A); Kieran Burke (G) (55.9 SV%); Austin Pifani (D) (29GB, 10CT)

Denver
NCAA Tournament Appearances: Seven (Last: 2013)
NCAA Tournament Bid Type: Automatic Qualifier (Big East)
Record: 14-2 (6-0, Big East)
Combustibles: Wes Berg (A) (41G, 17A); Jeremy Noble (M) (11G, 30A); Chris Hampton (FOGO) (52.3 FO%); Jack Bobzien (A) (38G, 18A)

Truncated Tempo-Free Profiles

NORTH CAROLINA at DENVER (AS OF MAY 5, 2014)
METRIC NORTH CAROLINA DENVER
Adjusted Offensive Efficiency 40.19 (4) 45.12 (1)
Adjusted Defensive Efficiency 23.32 (1) 29.25 (25)
Possession Margin per 60 Minutes of Play -0.43 (41) +1.68 (19)
Adjusted Pythagorean Win Expectation 84.50% (2) 80.96% (3)
Downloadable Tempo-Free Profile (.pdf) North Carolina Denver

There is one immutable rule in Division I lacrosse: Never bet against Bill Tierney. Ever. In his career, Tierney hold six NCAA Tournament championships (all with Princeton), eight Memorial Monday appearances, 12 Championship Weekend appearances (two with Denver), and 19 quarterfinals appearances. Tierney will eat your soul if you lack faith in his ability to get it done in May, and even though Denver appears weaker than the 'Heels in many ways on paper, Tierney is still there -- with his intensity eye lasers -- reminding you that he owns the late spring as much as any coach in the game.

Two Things

  • Denver's power -- a concentrated force of light -- is on the offensive end of the field. However, what the Pios get out of their defense -- a decent unit -- could ultimately dictate the team's ceiling this spring. The most interesting aspect of Denver's defensive unit is the production that they get out of the crease: The Pioneers lean on Ryan LaPlante and Jamie Faus to make stops, and the two keepers -- in a rotation with LaPlante getting starts and Faus closing -- have answered the bell. These are dual number one goalies, and Denver needs them to play well given their role in the team's overall defensive structure:
    DENVER'S GOALKEEPING PROFILE (AS OF MAY 5, 2014)
    METRIC VALUE RANK
    Shots on Goal per Defensive Opportunity 0.69 47
    Ratio of Shots on Goal to Total Shots per Defensive Opportunity 58.65% 36
    Raw Shots on Goal Defensive Shooting Rate 43.47% 7
    Saves per 100 Defensive Opportunities 39.25 7
    Team Save Percentage 56.74% 7
    Teams are putting a high volume of shots on net per defensive opportunity against Denver (and a good chunk of the shots taken against the Pios are on goal), but LaPlante and Faus are smashing faces and killing attempts with their play between the pipes. There isn't an impenetrable field around the Pioneers crease, but Denver is getting exceptional -- and necessary -- performances from their two netminders. Increasing LaPlante and Faus' contributions to the Pios' success is this: Denver is one of the slowest teams in the nation (playing about 58 possessions per 60 minutes of play and only work in about 28 defensive opportunities per 60 minutes of play). Opponents get limited cracks at beating these two cats, and given the efforts of LaPlante and Faus, that creates difficulty for opposing offenses.
  • It's almost hard to believe that North Carolina -- winners of four NCAA Tournament titles -- hasn't been to Championship Weekend since 1993, a year in which Carolina finished with the silver medal behind Syracuse after falling to the third-seeded Orange (Syracuse's Matt Riter scored the game-winner with eight seconds remaining in regulation). The Tar Heels' 20-year Memorial Day Weekend drought is dotted with 12 NCAA Tournament appearances, five of which featured bomb-outs in the first round and in seven involved North Carolina crashing out in the quarterfinals round. It's the team's last five burn outs in the quarterfinal round -- 2004, 2007, 2009, 2010, and 2013 -- that really burns the 'Heels: Carolina was seeded all five years, lost to their archrivals -- Duke -- three of the five times, lost two absolute heartbreakers (in 2007, the Tar Heels used a late rally to get back into the game but couldn't knot the score at the buzzer; in 2013, the Tar Heels saw a dominant first half performance disappear against Denver), and holds a five-goal average margin of defeat in the quarterfinal round in this stretch. This is one of the most decorated programs in Division I lacrosse and the Tar Heels are stuck neutral relative to Championship Weekend.
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