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2014 College Lacrosse Preview: The Albany Situation

Can the defense take another step forward?

The Great Danes ran with one of the most explosive offenses in the nation last season but finished 13th in the final LaxPower ratings, 17th in adjusted efficiency margin, and 19th in Pythagorean win expectation. How is that possible? The answer is somewhat straightforward: Albany was a beautiful but flawed team, one that could score with ease but was a bit of a sieve on the defensive end of the field. It's that internal relationship that may determine the Great Danes' ceiling in 2014: Depending on the team's defensive growth, Albany may struggle to realize the potential that its offense provides.

Albany took a major step forward from 2012 to 2013, maturing its performance on the field to a level that saw the Great Danes' Pythagorean win expectation rise 14.44 percent (from 45.70 percent in 2012 to 60.14 percent in 2013). That's a significant improvement year over year, but it's mostly attributable to Albany's offensive growth compared to its defensive improvement: The Great Danes, in 2013, scored about six more goals per 100 offensive opportunities compared to 2012 while only yielding about one fewer goal per 100 defensive opportunities in 2013 compared to 2012. It was the Great Danes' offensive evolution that drove the team's progress from 2012 to 2013, almost in spite of the team's lagging defensive advancement.

This doesn't mean that the Great Danes didn't improve on the defensive end of the field; rather, it's that Albany's defense only marginally improved and didn't elevate the team's overall production to a degree that would thrust the Great Danes into the nation's hyper-elite. The team's accumulated data in selected metrics supports that position:

Adjusted Defensive Efficiency 33.30 45 32.75 38
Shots per Defensive Opportunity 0.97 15 1.05 22
Raw Defensive Shooting Rate 35.88% 60 31.38% 56
Defensive Assist Rate 20.44 49 18.25 39
Penalties per 100 Opportunities 5.93 35 5.42 31
Man-Down Postures per 100 Defensive Opportunities 10.81 38 10.80 37
Man-Down Conversion Rate 34.38% 32 33.78% 30
Man-Down Reliance 10.63% 27 11.11% 27
Saves per 100 Defensive Opportunities 23.65 59 29.93 50
Team Save Percentage 40.35% 61 47.67% 56

The growth of Albany's defense from 2013 to 2014 is a major issue for the Great Danes. The team needs a sense of balance in its play as the Great Danes' offense -- while spectacular and as dangerous as any in Division I -- may be inherently limited in its further development (the team scored on about 37 percent of its offensive possessions last season (the seventh-best mark in the country) and the top value in the nation usually hovers around 40 percent). Thus, it's Albany's defensive situation that earns spotlight treatment entering the coming spring as its efficiency is valuable to the Great Danes' overall effort for three reasons:

  1. Albany's Style: No team played more possessions -- in totem -- per 60 minutes of play than the Great Danes did in 2013. Expected to play a similar style in 2014, it's anticipated that Albany's defense will face among the highest volume of defensive opportunities per 60 minutes of play (potentially north of 37 defensive opportunities per 60 minutes of play). That's a high level of exposure, and if the team can't improve its defensive performance, the Great Danes would yield about 12.5 goals per 60 minutes of play. That's . . . that's a nightmare driven through style that requires a more stringent eye toward creating stops.
  2. Competitiveness Against the Elite: The most glaring illustration of Albany's defensive problems as it relates to the team's competitiveness against nationally-relevant teams is the Great Danes' record against teams ranked in the top 20 in Pythagorean win expectation in 2013: Scott Marr's charges went 2-3 against teams in that subset (wins against Syracuse (a 16-15 double overtime win at the sunrise of each teams' season) and Johns Hopkins (10-9); losses to Yale (8-15), Bucknell (12-18), and Denver (14-19)). Albany's defensive situation doesn't potentially make them a fraud; rather, it's that Albany possibly has limitations in the coming spring and the Great Danes' ceiling is potentially dictated, in part, by the team's defensive situation.
  3. Alleviation of Pressure on Offense: There is an analogue that comes to mind when thinking about Albany -- its 2013 first round NCAA Tournament opponent, Denver. The difference between the two teams -- the residue being the overall competitiveness of each team last year -- was that the Pioneers were stronger defensively (in the overall) than the Great Danes and more than three goals per 100 offensive opportunities more efficient than Albany. The Pioneers proved that you can win -- and win a lot -- with an offensively-dominated team that is capable of flushing opponents down the toilet simply by making the scoreboard blink incessantly. The problem for the Great Danes in 2014, though, is that they need to grow -- on both ends of the field -- to duplicate Denver's unique circumstances. There's a fine line that teams toe when they generate the vast majority of their success on one side of the ball; it leaves little wiggle room to exist. If Albany does not grow defensively, the Great Danes may not be able to follow the Pioneers' blueprint from last year.

Albany has been going in the right direction defensively, but the team needs even greater production from its defense in 2014 if it hopes to truly break through and establish itself as a complete threat to Championship Weekend.