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2014 College Lacrosse Preview: The Syracuse Face-Off Talking Point

This has almost reached Massachusetts'-strength-of-schedule proportions.

Drew Hallowell

The Juice, a Syracuse-oriented site, sets the scene in a piece titled "Syracuse lacrosse will need to see improvement in faceoffs":

For Syracuse to have any success, it will need a reliable faceoff game.

First: That statement is not true. It's a fact that the Orange were dreadful on draws last season and that the team's inability to win on the whistle (1) impacted Syracuse's overall possession margin, and (2) limited the Orange's percentage of opportunities earned through face-off wins:

Face-off Percentage 42.02% 55
Percentage of Offensive Opportunities from Face-off Wins 30.91% 51
Offensive Opportunities per 60 Minutes Margin -1.39 40

Syracuse, though, won 16 games in 2013 (the team's three regular season losses were by a total of three goals), advanced to the national championship game, shared the Big East regular season crown, and won the league's postseason tournament. Stating that the Orange won't find success in 2014 if the team's faceoff doesn't improve is merely an effort in looking at the 2013 season and pretending it didn't happen. What the statement does is mask the true concern: That Syracuse won't defend or bury the bean as well as it did last season. (This statement is the running theme of this piece. You've been warned.)

Second: Face-off play matters, but it isn't a definitive factor in finding success or wallowing in the gutter of Division I lacrosse. Face-off efforts are a facet of play (and teams should attempt to find strength in that facet of play), but such performances are not solely responsible for a team's possession situation or their ability to succeed. In fact, in the three primary possession-generating activities (face-off opportunities, clearing opportunities, and failed clearing opportunities from opponents), face-off wins aren't the most prevalent form of possession-generating activities:

  • There were 22,782 face-off wins in 2013. The national average of offensive opportunities earned through face-off wins as 35.40 percent.
  • There were 36,133 clearing opportunities last season. The national average of offensive opportunities earned through clearing opportunities was 56.81 percent.
  • There were 4,994 failed clearing opportunities last season. The national average of offensive opportunities earned through opponent failed clears was 7.79 percent.

The short of the long is this: Clearing -- through defensive stops -- still creates more offensive opportunities than face-offs. Thus, the ability to make defensive stands and efficiently clear the bean is arguably more valuable than mere face-off wins given how more prominent clearing opportunities are in a game compared to face-off situations. (There are, however, notable exceptions.) This situation -- a focus on creating defensive stops in order to generate offensive opportunities -- leads directly into the fourth point.

Fourth: How teams perform in run-of-play situations (basically, any situation that isn't a face-off posture) is more important than how a team takes draws. This isn't to imply that face-off play isn't important, but how a team executes -- in the offensive or defensive end of the field -- when possession is established is more important than who wins a groundball in a face-off situation. This is true for two reasons: (1) Face-offs are a dependent activity as a team needs to score or to yield a goal in order for more than four faceoffs to occur in a game (save for the limited possibility of a 0-0 game going into 10,000 overtimes); and (2) While face-offs create opportunities (offensive and defensive), teams must still maximize that opportunity and either score or stop the opposition from scoring (this is why a scoreboard exists). Face-off play can impact how a team executes, but execution at the offensive and defensive end of the field is still the primary reason teams win or lose.

The proof underlying this position is easy to establish. Using Syracuse's 2013 season as a guide, let's consider four permutations of that effort:

  • Permutation I: Syracuse draws at the 2013 national average (49.80 percent) and maintains the same adjusted offensive and defensive efficiencies as it did drawing at 42.02 percent.
  • Permutation II: Syracuse draws at the 2013 national average (49.80 percent), maintains the same adjusted defensive efficiency value it generated in 2013, but holds an adjusted offensive efficiency consistent with Virginia's offensive effort in 2013.
  • Permutation III: Syracuse draws at the 2013 national average (49.80 percent), maintains the same adjusted offensive efficiency value it generated in 2013, but holds an adjusted defensive efficiency consistent with Virginia's defensive effort in 2013.
  • Permutation IV: Syracuse draws at the 2013 national average (49.80 percent), but holds adjusted offensive and defensive efficiencies consistent with Virginia's effort in 2013.

How would Syracuse's expected winning percentage look under these various permutations? The answer:

Actual 2013 Performance 35.22 25.39 -1.39 73.38% 15 Wins
Permutation I 35.34 25.36 +2.28 73.67% 15 Wins
Permutation II 32.10 25.40 +2.28 67.39% 13 Wins
Permutation III 35.19 27.64 +2.28 67.89% 14 Wins
Permutation IV 32.10 27.69 +2.28 61.26% 12 Wins

Worrying exclusively about face-off play is like complaining about how a shower curtain hook looks when the concern should be on whether the plumbing in the bathroom is going to work as well as it did in the past.

Fifth: Improvement in Syracuse's face-off play could significantly help the Orange's overall efforts. Again: Face-off play matters -- it creates offensive opportunities (which helps teams lean on volume if scoring becomes problematic); it limits defensive exposure; and it helps teams to run away and hide or keep the scoreboard close. It's good that the Orange have a renewed focus on their draw efforts, and an increased face-off win percentage could ease the pressure on Syracuse's offense and defense to perform hyper-efficiently. There is non-conclusive truth to this: 17 teams had a Pythagorean win expectation of at least 61 percent in 2013; all but four of those teams -- Syracuse, Loyola, Princeton, and Bucknell -- had face-off percentages at or above 50 percent. It's important to remember, though, that face-off improvement is only a small part of the Orange's puzzle and that the team's run-of-play execution is still more indicative of the team's ceiling than mere win-loss rates at the dot.