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"The Trend": College Lacrosse Defenses and Offenses

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I can't remember where I read it (Inside LacrosseThe Post-Standard?), but someone recently asked the question of whether college lacrosse offenses were getting better/worse or if defenses were getting better/worse?

I'll be honest: I have no freaking clue what the answer to that question is.  It's inherently chicken-egg; it's circular in its construct, and trying to definitively answer it will make your mind explode like in Erasers or when you try to explain to your mother why you refuse to get married.

I did, however, give a swing at answer the query.  I've recently pulled together three years worth of statistical efficiency data for Division I, going all the way back to the 2009 season.  (You're right.  I have no life.)  The trends here aren't huge and it is, admittedly, only a picture into the last three seasons.  The results, though, are potentially telling: I think collegiate offenses have improved while their defensive counterparts have regressed.

Here are some charts as background.  I list the top-five teams in the metric, the bottom-five teams, and the national average:

1. Cornell 38.12
2. Denver 36.39
3. Duke 35.63
4. Drexel 35.12
5. Stony Brook 34.75
AVG. N/A 28.05
57. Providence 20.36
58. St. Joseph's 20.15
59. Presbyterian 19.20
60. Holy Cross 19.04
61. Mercer 17.47

ABOVE MEAN: 32 Teams
BELOW MEAN: 29 Teams

1. Duke 36.67
2. Virginia 36.43
3. Hofstra 36.07
4. Lafayette 35.22
5. Stony Brook 34.92
AVG. N/A 28.13
56. Presbyterian 22.05
57. VMI 20.15
58. Wagner 19.82
59. Air Force 19.65
60. Providence 16.91

ABOVE MEAN: 32 Teams
BELOW MEAN: 28 Teams

1. Syracuse 35.33
2. Cornell 33.82
3. Johns Hopkins 33.56
4. UMBC 33.28
5. Princeton 32.67
AVG. N/A 25.45
55. Holy Cross 19.11
56. Mt. St. Mary's 18.09
57. Presbyterian 15.97
58. Wagner 15.90
59. Detroit 14.97

ABOVE MEAN: 30 Teams
BELOW MEAN: 29 Teams

So, what is this showing me with respect to offenses over the last three years?

  • Well, in 2009, there were some really, really bad offensive teams at the bottom of the table.  These offensive teams are notably worse than the the worst offensive teams in 2011.  This shows me some worthwhile improvement, meaning that the worst offensive teams now are better than they were in the not-too-distant past.
  • At the top of the tables, there's also some improvement showing.  It's not as significant, to me, as the improvement of the worst teams, but the best offenses in 2011 and 2010 are/were better than those in 2009.  I think that says something important: Everyone is a little better with the bean nowadays.
  • What's also important is the distribution of teams relative to the average offensive team (which, importantly, has also seen a rise since 2008).  There is a pretty even distribution: About half of the teams competing in Division I are above the mean; about half are below the mean.  This tells me that there aren't a few really bad or really capable offensive teams skewing the average.  Everyone falls nicely on the distribution mean.  And, as noted, that mean has risen.

Defenses and conclusions after the jump.

1. Notre Dame 19.34
2. Johns Hopkins 21.59
3. Syracuse 21.77
4. Army 22.23
5. Ohio State 22.51
AVG. N/A 27.74
57. Presbyterian 34.05
58. St. Joseph's 35.10
59. Mercer 38.43
60. VMI 39.02
61. Wagner 40.20

ABOVE MEAN: 35 Teams
BELOW MEAN: 26 Teams

1. Syracuse 21.54
2. Notre Dame 21.72
3. Bryant 22.60
4. North Carolina 22.85
5. Virginia 23.21
AVG. N/A 28.93
56. Bellarmine 35.17
57. St. Joseph's 36.39
58. VMI 36.47
59. Presbyterian 37.19
60. Wagner 38.88

ABOVE MEAN: 37 Teams
BELOW MEAN: 23 Teams

1. Notre Dame 16.70
2. Navy 19.40
3. Virginia 19.91
4. Harvard 20.02
5. Siena 20.97
AVG. N/A 26.79
55. Pennsylvania 34.27
56. Robert Morris 34.42
57. VMI 34.61
58. Detroit 37.74
59. Wagner 40.31

ABOVE MEAN: 31 Teams
BELOW MEAN: 28 Teams

So, what is this showing me with respect to defenses over the last three years?

  • As you can see, the distribution to the mean, with respect to defenses, isn't as "clean" as the offensive distribution.  There is a noted gap between the defensively capable and the defensively incapable. The worst are truly bad and the best are truly great.  This is a bit worrisome when talking about how defenses, on a whole, are performing. 
  • With that said though, there is a trend toward defenses regressing over the last few years.  The best aren't quite as staunch while the worst are still huddled in that 34.00-40.00 range (thanks, Wagner).  This isn't huge, though.  There may have just been some better defenses in 2009 (or, maybe, they faced worse offenses?).

I guess when push comes to shove, I'll rest on the following statements:

  • I think offenses are getting better, and it's in no small part due to more capable offensive players.  In 2009, Brandon Corp lead the country in total offensive value (points per 100 offensive possessions) at 11.93.  In 2011, he'd be sixth.  This isn't huge, but I think that it does help illustrate the strength of offenses over defenses the last few seasons.
  • When I started this research, I really thought there'd be a sharp improvement in defensive efficiency since 2009 due to the spread of the tight zone defense.  That doesn't really seem to be the case. Offenses are still solving the zone.  In the end, I think the zones might simply be slowing down the game rather than putting an explosion containment box on opposing offenses.  I'd take this sentiment with a grain of salt, though.
  • There's all kinds of other stuff that goes into this: equipment (you basically need to hold an opposing player at knife point to get the ball away from him these days), who's playing whom, and each year's particular idiosyncrasies.  The big picture, however, seems to indicate that offenses are better now than they were in 2009 and defenses have suffered from that.