There are currently four undefeated schools in Division I: Hofstra (5-0), Notre Dame (4-0), Syracuse (5-0), and Yale (4-0). Let's pick apart each one because, well, it's more fun than talking about why Wagner is absolutely miserable year-in and year-out.
Let's just get this out of the way: I can't stand the way Notre Dame plays lacrosse. This isn't to say that the Irish's methodology isn't impressive or effective. It is. It's just that my preferred style of lacrosse mirrors my preference in women: hectic, with a high probability of scoring.
Now, Kevin Corrigan has assembled quite the crew of mashers in 2011. These guys are big, strong, plodding, and will win games by brute force. There isn't flash with Notre Dame; it's pragmatism on the pitch. And, unsurprisingly, that's precisely why the Irish are sitting pretty on this date: Undefeated and rocking a big old "3" next to their name in the national poll.
Let's break Notre Dame down: How they've stayed unbeaten, where their weaknesses are, and where's the first potential loss.
UNDEFEATED: NOTRE DAME'S BLUEPRINT
The first thing that people want to talk about when they yammer about Notre Dame is the Irish's control of "pace." It's true: Pace is important to Notre Dame, but only because a) it dilutes the responsibility of the Irish's mediocre offense to win games, and b) it allows the Irish's phenomenal defense to go about its meathead-ish business.
Let's start with Notre Dame's defense, which is arguably the best in the country and has held firm in numerous contests this year when it was asked to secure victory. As always, we start with efficiency. The Irish are currently second nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency (19.12 goals per 100 possessions) and it has amassed this efficiency value against the fifth hardest schedule in terms of "opposing offenses faced."
Yeah, that's getting it done.
A big reason for Notre Dame's incredible defensive performance in 2011 is due to the team's defensive discipline. The Irish are sixth in defensive assist rate (.089), which basically means that Barnes, Ridgeway, and Randall are doing anything but ball watching. When opponents are scoring against Notre Dame, they're forced to do it via individual effort (this is buttressed by both Notre Dame's defensive assist rate and that fact that the Irish's opponents are only utilizing extra-man opportunities to score about 12% of goals against Notre Dame). Basically, to beat the Irish when you have the bean, you need to play like Superman with a gatling gun.
Yeah, that's getting it done with two hands on the crosse and a scowl on your face.
Let's keep talking about the defense, but let's do it in the context of opponent shooting opportunity. Notre Dame is yielding about one shot per defensive possession (40th nationally), but opponent's are maintaining only a 22.37% effective shooting percentage against the Irish (seventh nationally). What does this tell me?
- Notre Dame is getting on opposing offensive player's hands; and
- Jack Kemp is some kind of wonderful (63.8 save percentage).
When you realize that Notre Dame only plays 28 defensive possessions a game (fifth nationally), you quickly understand that the Irish's defensive might combined with the few opportunities opponent's have to score results in the Irish raising their hands in victory rather than drooping their heads in defeat.
WEAK SPOTS: OFFENSIVE ABILITY AND PACE FACTORS
Here's the thing: Notre Dame is currently seventh nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency (34.45 goals per 100 possessions). Here's another thing: Notre Dame isn't even close to the seventh-best offensive team in the country.
I really like Zach Brenneman. I'm also starting to come around on Ryan Foley and Sean Rogers. The issue, though, is while these guys have some game, the totality of Notre Dame's offense is anemic. Nobody in the country takes more shots in the offensive end than Notre Dame (1.28 per possession). Yet, the Irish's effective shooting percentage is only 27.74% (31st nationally and below the country's average value). This all looks lukewarm, but when you understand that Notre Dame has faced the 44th most difficult schedule in terms of "opponent defenses faced," you start to wonder whether the Irish have enough offense to get them over the hump against teams like Virginia, Syracuse, Villanova, Cornell, ad infinitum.
Quite frankly, this is potentially large concern for Notre Dame.
The other area of concern that is rearing its ugly head are pace factors -- face-off percentage and defensive clearing percentage. As noted: Notre Dame makes a lot of its bones on controlling pace and driving it square into the ground (only four teams are slower than the Irish at 56.00 total possessions per game). But, and this is a big but, Notre Dame only wins 53.16% of its opportunities at the dot; it also allows opponents to clear 87.14 percent of its chances (52nd-worst nationally). If Notre Dame can't control these pace factors (i.e., is forced to play more defensive possessions and fewer offensive possessions in a game), does the Irish's potential inability to mount a comeback with its offense doom the team's chances for victory?
In the past? No. Against Villanova, Syracuse, and Georgetown? Well, I'd be worried.
FIRST POTENTIAL LOSS
I could easily see Notre Dame losing a defensive slap-fight against Ohio State on March 23rd. However, the first legitimate chance for a loss looks to be against Villanova on April 2nd:
- Villanova is willing to fall into Notre Dame's trap: The Wildcats are comfortable in not having a ton of offensive possessions (only about 31.1 per game (47th nationally)) and don't mind playing at a snail's pace (Villanova only plays about 59 total possessions per game, good for 54th nationally). So, Notre Dame's style will not freak out the 'Cats.
- Where Villanova can counter Notre Dame (and where the Irish's opponents have yet to truly succeed in the context of riding it to victory), is that the Wildcats have an offense. Villanova is first in adjusted offensive efficiency (36.88 goals per 100 possessions), eighth in offensive effective shooting percentage (34.12%), and third nationally in assist rate (.21). This is an offense that can stifle Notre Dame's defense, even if the Wildcats haven't played against the most difficult defenses in the country as of yet.
- Defensively, Villanova isn't outstanding (only 45th in adjusted defensive efficiency), but the huge key is the Wildcats' goalie, Billy Hurley. Hurley is stopping 51.2 percent of the shots he's seeing, and with Brian Karalunas manning the pole, there may be enough defensive is gusto here to neuter the Irish's offense.