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2014 College Lacrosse Preview: The Look of a Champion

Traits are emerging that indicate championship quality.

Drew Hallowell

Champions come in different flavors, but traits are emerging that indicate the qualities of those that take a victory lap on Memorial Monday. Over the last five seasons, as data has continued to develop, the qualities of national champions -- not taking into account principles like correlation -- have hinged upon the following:

  • Elite offenses: The last five national champions had offenses that ranked in the top 10 nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency. With an ability to maximize offensive opportunities, these teams were generally nightmares for opposing defenses, generating tallies around or greater than 35 percent of the time they had an offensive opportunity to score. The building blocks to those high offensive efficiency values also rank among the nation's best: These teams were generally in the top 10 in raw offensive shooting percentage (Loyola in 2012 was an outlier), the teams were among the nation's best in sharing the ball and creating assisted scoring opportunities (offenses that act as a prism and feature a host of offensive weapons are problematic simply because they exist), and the teams rarely relied on extra-man opportunities to make the scoreboard blink.
  • Balanced performances: National titlists since 2009 have also exhibited balance between their offensive and defensive performances. With the exception of Duke in 2013, these teams have finished the year ranked in the top 10 in adjusted defensive efficiency. The end result are adjusted efficiency margin rankings (the difference between the rate at which a team scores goals against the rate at which it yields tallies) in the top five in the country (Duke even ranked in the top 10) and Pythagorean win expectation values in the top five (Duke ranked 13th but was arguably playing like a team with a value in the top five at the end of the 2013 season). Balanced teams are best situated to win lots of games against any quality of competition, and these teams have supplemented their elite offenses with sufficient defensive performances.
  • Valuation of the bean: Division I turnover data isn't available for 2009, but the last four national champions have generally been among the best in the nation at limiting turnovers. Combined with generally high clearing rates among four of the last five national champions (2010 Duke was the worst of the bunch in terms of clearing percentage), these teams are maximizing their offensive opportunities by both valuing possession and creating offensive opportunities that gestate as box-possessions. In short, national titlists have made the most of their offensive opportunities.
  • Battle-hardened: With the exception of Loyola in 2012, recent national champions have played schedules -- in totem -- that have ranked in the top 10 nationally in strength of schedule. Winston Churchill's quote is emblematic of these programs' march toward total victory: "If you're going through Hell, keep going."

Here's a chart that summarizes all of the various metrics considered:

Click to enlarge.

So, what does this mean for 2014 projection purposes? It's necessarily unclear -- teams change from season to season, and even those with a sense of consistency in the roster are subject to the travails that new opportunities present -- but there's a real good chance that the coming season's champion comes out of the ACC. That league -- more than any other -- is expected to provide the heaviest strength of schedule for its participants, an attribute that has indicated a national champion in the recent past. Digging a little deeper into that conference to find a potential national champion, Notre Dame could be a long shot for the national title given the team's historic struggle to create offense, Maryland maintains an offensive variable that may limit its chances given the volume of youth dotting the team's offensive efforts, and Virginia has balance questions lingering from a season ago. That leaves some combination of Syracuse, North Carolina, and Duke as programs that hold the most potential -- based on what prior year championship teams looked like -- for cutting the nets in Baltimore.

It's no surprise, then, that Orange, Tar Heels, and Blue Devils will likely start the season in the top three in both major polls. Each team simply looks -- at this point -- most like the teams that have put hardware into a trophy cabinet in each of the last five seasons.