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Eulogizing the 2014 College Lacrosse Season: North Carolina

The story never seems to have a happy ending for the Heels.

Jim O'Connor-US PRESSWIRE

You spent the better part of four months meticulously dissecting the 2014 college lacrosse season. You shouldn't stop now because cold turkey is a bad way to go through life, man. College Crosse is providing decompression snapshots of all 67 teams and their 2014 campaigns, mostly because everything needs a proper burial.

VITAL SIGNS

NORTH CAROLINA TAR HEELS
METRIC VALUE NATIONAL RANK
2014 Record 10-5 (2-3, ACC) N/A
2014 Winning Percentage 66.67% 15
2013 Record 13-4 (2-1, ACC) N/A
2013 Winning Percentage 76.47% 3
2014 Adjusted Pythagorean Win Expectation 82.78% 2
2013 Adjusted Pythagorean Win Expectation 76.87% 4
Value Change in Adjusted Pythagorean Win Expectation +5.91% 19*
National Rank Change in Adjusted Pythagorean Win Expectation +2* 22*
2014 Adjusted Offensive Efficiency 38.98 5
2013 Adjusted Offensive Efficiency 40.28 2
Value Change in Adjusted Offensive Efficiency -1.30 46*
National Rank Change in Adjusted Offensive Efficiency -3* 38*
2014 Adjusted Defensive Efficiency 23.40 1
2013 Adjusted Defensive Efficiency 27.06 16
Value Change in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency +3.66 10*
National Rank Change in Defensive Efficiency +15* 9*
Downloadable Team Profile (.pdf)

*These ranking values consider only the programs that competed in the 2013 and 2014 seasons. Accordingly, Boston University, Furman, Monmouth, and Richmond are not considered.

"ATTA BOY!" FACT

This is what I wrote about Carolina's defense following the close of the 2012 season:

A lot is made of North Carolina's desire to shift defenses -- sometimes mid-possession -- from zone to man to "thing getting abused." It was that last defensive strategy that North Carolina seemed to excel at during major stretches of its season and it was the biggest reason that the Heels crashed out of the NCAA Tournament in the opening round. Despite playing only around 31 defensive possessions per 60 minutes of play (a strong mark considering the Heels played at a pace that finished 13th in the country), the lack of defensive posture exposure did not help Carolina all that much: Only five teams were more prone to ball-watching, yielding assisted goals all over the place, and the team's raw defensive shooting rate (30.22 percent) finished in the bottom third of the nation. The combination of Steven Rastivo having a difficult time with ball stopping (he held a 50.4 save percentage) and the Heels' field players failing to mark both on- and off-ball drove an adjusted defensive efficiency rate that ranked just 36th in the country. With such little actual defensive exposure and against a schedule ranked around 24th in opposing offenses faced, North Carolina should have performed much better in the defensive end. Alas, treachery does not always work within the structure of sensibility.

Since then, the Heels' defense has pragmatically shed its characterization as a liability, strengthening to the point that North Carolina finished the 2014 season among the nation's leaders in defensive efficiency. That growth -- one that took only two seasons to accomplish -- speaks volumes about what can be done in a relatively short period of time, turning a once-mediocre aspect of play into a viable and capable weapon. The following table illustrates just how far the Tar Heels have come with their defense in just a handful of seasons of competition:

FROM FACE BEING CRUSHED TO CRUSHING FACES
METRIC '12 VALUE '12 N'TL RANK '13 VALUE '13 N'TL RANK '14 VALUE '14 N'TL RANK +/-: '12-'14 (VALUE) +/-: '12-'14 (N'TL RANK)
Adjusted Defensive Efficiency 31.00 36 27.06 16 23.40 1 +7.60 +35
Shots per Defensive Opportunity 1.05 34 1.04 19 0.98 8 +0.07 +26
Shots on Goal per Defensive Opportunity 0.65 40 0.62 21 0.56 2 +0.09 +38
Ratio of Shots on Goal to Total Shots per Defensive Opportunity 61.87% 49 59.65% 35 57.26% 21 +4.61% +28
Raw Defensive Shooting Rate 30.22% 40 26.95% 20 25.40% 8 +4.82% +32
Raw Defensive Shots on Goal Shooting Rate 48.84% 30 45.19% 19 44.37% 8 +4.47% +22
Defensive Assist Rate 22.18 57 15.28 16 15.19 15 +6.99 +42
Saves per 100 Defensive Opportunities 33.08 22 34.05 28 31.16 49 -1.92 -27
Team Save Percentage 51.16% 30 54.81% 19 55.63% 8 +4.47% +22

That is an incredible depth of development and maturation in a short period of time. The team's offense grabs all the headlines for Carolina, but the Heels' defense has shown a level of competency that probably deserves more credit than it gets. Improving across the board in all relevant defensive metrics just isn't the mark of a program with a renewed focus around generating results; it also signals a reflection of addressing issues and embarking on a concerted effort to not only meet expectations but exceed them. North Carolina's defensive staff and players have done a crazy amount of work to become a pounding force of suffocating might.

"YOU'RE GROUNDED UNTIL YOU QUALIFY FOR THE AARP!" FACT

The NCAA Tournament Selection Committee has done no favors for North Carolina the last three seasons. Drawing Denver in each of the last three NCAA Tournaments -- in 2012 and 2014 the Heels pulled the Pioneers in the first round; in 2013 the teams met in the quarterfinals -- has been the equivalent of two highly-armed assassins standing in a pasture with guns drawn on each other. These were miserable matchups for Carolina, ones where the team was in a tough spot against a solid opponent:

THANKS FOR NOTHING
YEAR RESULT LAXPOWER PREDICTED GOAL DIFFERENTIAL MASSEY WIN PROBABILITY
2014 5-9 (L) -1 24%
2013 11-12 (L) +1 59%
2012 14-16 (L) 0 46%

Those are massive kicks to Carolina's stones. The only meeting between the two schools in The Big Barbeque that looked like the Heels would be an underdog came last spring; in all other meetings North Carolina was stronger than or a peer program to the Pios. These games have been must-watch television for the college lacrosse universe, but Carolina probably wouldn't mind if they don't see Denver on their side of the bracket for, like, the next dozen years.

THE DISTANT FUTURE

Joe Breschi didn't mix up his starting lineup much last spring: 12 players earned starts last season for the Heels, and of those 12 cats, nine will return for 2015. In total, the Heels have waived goodbye to 20 percent of its 2014 starts, the biggest departures being Jordan Smith (a defenseman) and Pat Foster (a midfielder). Otherwise, Carolina will return the bulk of the team's primary contributors from last season. Assets are in place -- once again -- for the Heels to erase their two-decade long absence from Championship Weekend.