The Northeast Conference went through two seasons of underprivileged existence prior to earning an automatic invitation to the NCAA Tournament. The Atlantic Sun built a conference from nothing, moving its assets to the Southern Conference before the portfolio fully realized its value. None of those issues will apply to the Big Ten in the league's freshman lacrosse effort: Supported with two national programs of incredible value, two programs that have carved out a place in the country's consciousness, a program that is starting to realize some of its historic volition, and another that is quickly moving in the right direction after undergoing its genesis only a few seasons ago, the Big Ten is positioned well to not only compete with some of the stronger conferences in the nation but also assert a potential in capacity that others may lack.
The Big Ten is, at the sunrise of the season before the league has officially sponsored a minute of action, a player on the national scene. This is the conference that college lacrosse needs to help push the growth of the game into previously unrefined areas of the country, even if two mid-Atlantic programs are the centerpieces to that progress. There is too much energy in the league -- even at this stage of the conference's maturity -- to escape what the Big Ten could mean for Division I lacrosse on the whole.
Underlying background information -- team and league storylines -- that structures the plot.
|Four-Year Average Conference Adjusted Pythagorean Win Expectation Value (Conference Strength)||60.40%||2|
|Four-Year Average Conference Adjusted Pythagorean Win Expectation Value Rank (Conference Strength)||3.00||2|
|Standard Deviation of League Members' Adjusted Pythagorean Win Expectation Values (Internal Competitiveness)||0.1968||9|
|Average Standard Deviation of League Members' Adjusted Pythagorean Win Expectation Value Rank (Internal Competitiveness)||7.50||7|
|TEAM||AVG. APYTH. WIN EXP.||NT'L RANK||AVG. APYTH. WIN EXP. RANK||NT'L RANK|
- Six straight seasons without an appearance at Championship Weekend along with an NCAA Tournament exclusion in 2013 has slowed the chatter around Hopkins as a national title contender in 2015, but the Jays -- one of the strongest programs in the nation over the last four seasons despite the program's lack of success in May -- are positioned well to create a high degree of damage this coming spring. Important assets have departed Baltimore -- Brandon Benn (arguably the team's best finisher last year), Rob Guida (a midfielder that created a dynamic look in 2014), and Jack Reilly (a second team All America last season) are all inhabiting the vast boredom of "real life" this spring -- but much remains available to the Blue Jays: Four of the team's top six point-generators return for another season of Bobby Benson's reimagined offense, including Wells Stanwick, a quiet Tewaaraton candidate that is capable of creating the combustion Hopkins desires; two of the team's starting close defensemen from last season -- Rob Enright and John Kelly -- will anchor the defense with Eric Schneider still turning away fools in the crease and Mike Pellegrino bulldoggin' the country at the long-stick midfield position; Phil Castronova will steady the team's efforts at the defensive midfield; and Drew Kennedy -- a cat that drew at 58.95 percent -- is still around to crush souls at the dot. In totem, almost 70 percent of the team's starts from 2014 return to Homewood this season, a high volume of contributors that helped Hopkins to finish eighth nationally in adjusted Pythagorean win expectation, eighth in LaxPower's final ratings, and seventh in the Massey ratings in 2014. (At a more refined level, almost three-quarters of the team's point-generators from last season return to progress an offense that finished 15th in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency in 2014. (And that doesn't even address the additions of the top two income freshmen in the nation in Shack Stanwick and Joel Tinney, offensive options that can only bolster an already powerful aspect of play for the Jays.) Almost every major defensive contributor returns to help a unit that finished the year ranked fifth in adjusted defensive efficiency.)
- What will the Terps' offense look like in the absence of Mike Chanenchuk? Chanenchuk's presence within Maryland's offensive model last season was difficult to ignore: An estimated 20 percent of the Terrapins' offensive opportunities ended with Chanenchuk doing something, with around 30 percent of the team's total goals attributed in some fashion to the former Terps midfielder and 20 percent of the team's shots running through the offensive power plant. Those offensive production values are important in the context of what Chanenchuk's departure means to the Terrapins, but it's the non-chartable aspects to Chanenchuk's efforts that are going to be difficult for Maryland to reproduce in 2015: The mere presence of Chanenchuk on the field forced opposing defenses to account for the action he could create, thus allowing for other offensive weapons to operate in an areas conducive for success. This is a major issue for a program that didn't share the ball all that well in 2014 -- the Terps ranked 45th in assist rate in 2014 -- and doesn't return a ton of dead-eye shooters to the field this spring: The team will return four of its top six highest shot users in 2014 (this assumes that Matt Rambo will participate for Maryland this spring), and that quartet -- outside of Jay Carlson -- needs to improve its accuracy if the Terps hope to heap extra responsibility on that group to generate buckets:
MARYLAND'S RETURNING OFFENSIVE CORE: 2014 SHOOTING PROFILE PLAYER SHOTS SHOTS ON GOAL GOALS SHT % SOG % Matt Rambo 111 63 30 27.03% 47.62% Jay Carlson 52 35 26 50.00% 74.29% Joe LoCascio 101 52 20 19.80% 38.46% Henry West 64 40 16 25.00% 40.00% QUARTET 328 190 92 28.05% 48.42% TEAM 681 395 193 28.34% 48.86%
- The Wolverines are moving in the right direction, and that statement has less to do with the fact that the team strung together five wins last season. Looking at how Michigan has progressed in "little thing" metrics (turnovers and groundball play, areas in which erratic programs often struggle), the Wolverines are starting to act like a team that is starting to refine its focus:
MICHIGAN'S IMPROVEMENT IN TURNOVERS AND RUN OF PLAY GROUNDBALLS: 2012-2014 METRIC '14 VALUE '14 RANK '13 VALUE '13 RANK '12 VALUE '12 RANK Turnovers per 100 Offensive Opportunities 41.46 18 47.82 43 55.41 53 Turnover Margin +1.04 33 -10.29 58 -15.41 60 Run of Play Groundballs per 100 Opportunities 24.13 61 25.00 48 22.74 53 Run of Play Groundballs Margin -1.08 41 -7.65 60 -1.44 37
- The Buckeyes were a fringe top 20 team in 2014 -- the team's adjusted Pythagorean win expectation value ranked 20th last season, LaxPower had the Buckeyes 21st at the end of last season, and the Massey ratings had Ohio State at 30th nationally -- and there is only mild heat on Ohio's only Division I program at the sunrise of the coming year. Much of the concern over the team's prospects for 2015 likely turn on the team's 6-8 record from last season, the program's first sub-.500 campaign since a 7-8 effort in 2010 that saw the program fail to string together three consecutive victories and beat only two teams -- Villanova and Quinnipiac -- that finished the year with a winning record. Digging into Ohio State's schedule last season, though, yields an important point to the team's volition in 2014: The Buckeyes dropped three games by a total of seven goals against competition that was as strong as Ohio State. The universe has an odd way of evening out as the Earth continues to spin toward its eventual demise through a robot apocalypse, and the Buckeyes could feel a reality recalibration after finishing 2014 with the worst difference between their expected and actual winning percentage (-21.07 percent).
- The loss of Shane Sturgis to graduation is a major blow to the Nittany Lions: The former attackman ended an estimated 21 percent of Penn State's offensive opportunities last season and accounted for around 37 percent of Penn State's goals and a quarter of the team's total points. There isn't a direct heir apparent to Sturgis on the Lions' roster, but there is an area of promise for Penn State on the offensive end of the field going into 2015: Drake Krienz is still available to the Nittany Lions to generate a high number of offensive opportunities. The relevance of Krienz to Penn State's offensive fortunes isn't negligible: Penn State finished last year ranked 33rd in adjusted offensive efficiency while the team was eighth nationally in possession margin per 60 minutes of play (+3.64), earning 40.78 percent of their offensive opportunities from faceoff victories (15th nationally). The Nittany Lions needed possession volume to make the scoreboard blink and keep pace with their opponents last season, and in a year in which Penn State will pivot from a Sturgis-oriented offense to something different, the Lions will likely need another season of possession volume in order to generate buckets. Krienz is a safety net of sorts that provides the Nittany Lions an opportunity to figure out what they are on the offensive end with T.J. Sanders & Co., Ltd.
- The Scarlet Knights own nine NCAA Tournament appearances but have not earned an invitation to college lacrosse's biggest moment since the 2004 season. That's a big drought for a program that participated in The Big Barbeque on an average of once every four seasons in the 33 years between the program's first and most recent appearance in the show. Brian Brecht has started to move the Knights in the right direction over his last three seasons in Piscataway, but there's still a lot of room for Rutgers to grow: The Scarlet Knights are 1-13 against teams ranked in the top 20 since 2012, the lone victory coming against Army last season in overtime. Rutgers has averaged an 8-14 loss against the 14 ranked teams they have met since 2012, performing virtually the same against top 10 opponents as opponents ranked between 11th and 20th. (Only four of Rutgers' 13 losses against top 20 competition have been by three goals or fewer in the examined stretch of games.) Bagging kills against inferior competition does show that the Knights are moving up the national hierarchy, but a notable gap exists between where Rutgers is currently and where it hopes to reside as Brecht's vision continues to take shape. How the Scarlet Knights perform against its best opposition in 2015 could provide the strongest status update on the team's trajectory.
Four important conference games that will define the discussion.
GAME I: Johns Hopkins at Maryland -- April 26
GAME II: Johns Hopkins at Ohio State -- April 5
GAME III: Maryland at Ohio State -- April 18
GAME IV: Ohio State at Penn State -- March 28
Illustrating the landscape of the universe.
It's possible that five teams could challenge for the league's four postseason tournament positions, but there's a stronger likelihood -- at least at the outset of the season -- that the Big Ten's postseason tournament pool is limited to Hopkins, Maryland, and The States. That, then, pivots the question about the league's landscape to another pressing issue: How many teams could the Big Ten get into The Big Barbeque? (The technically correct answer to that specific question is "six," as all of the league's programs are eligible to make the tournament.) The Terps and Jays look to have teams capable of pressing an at-large invitation if either should fail to earn the league's automatic invitation, but the capacity of Ohio State and/or Penn State to make an at-large bid is unclear. The strongest available route to at least three bids to the NCAA Tournament may be crowning a champion that isn't Hopkins or Maryland and having both the Terrapins and Blue Jays progress to a May adventure as an at-large candidate.
There are four tiers apparent in the league: Tier I: Hopkins and Maryland, a cut above the rest of the conference and two of the top 10 teams in the nation; Tier II: Ohio State and Penn State, a solid duo of teams likely in the conversation for top 20 inclusion throughout the year; Tier III: Rutgers, looking to continue the momentum that Brian Brecht has generated in Piscataway but still trailing the league's better teams; and Tier IV: Michigan, patiently waiting for its moment to arrive.