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2015 College Lacrosse Preview: Southern Conference Outlook

The SoCon starts its thing in 2015.

Plot

The youngest league in Division I based on the lifespans of its membership, the SoCon is entering 2015 not necessarily with expectations and pressure, but rather with the promise of opportunity. The league isn't filled with predators -- Bellarmine has been the strongest program in the league over the last four seasons and the Knights have struggled against their best competition -- but there is something important about the continued existence of a league populated with young programs seeking to accelerate their situations toward something more tangible than "Someday. . . ."

Possibly the most intriguing aspect of the Southern Conference in 2015 is whether the league's NCAA Tournament representative can advance past the play-in round. The conference will surely put its champion into the almost-bracket this spring, and a push from that invitee to the bracket-proper would stand as a major accomplishment for the league.

Exposition

Underlying background information -- team and league storylines -- that structures the plot.

TRUNCATED SOCON PROFILE: 2011-2014
METRIC VALUE N'TL RANK
Four-Year Average Conference Adjusted Pythagorean Win Expectation Value (Conference Strength) 28.69% 10
Four-Year Average Conference Adjusted Pythagorean Win Expectation Value Rank (Conference Strength) 10.00 10
Standard Deviation of League Members' Adjusted Pythagorean Win Expectation Values (Internal Competitiveness) 0.1649 6
Average Standard Deviation of League Members' Adjusted Pythagorean Win Expectation Value Rank (Internal Competitiveness) 7.25 6
THE SOCON: AVERAGE ADJUSTED PYTHAGOREAN WIN EXPECTATION VALUES AND NATIONAL RANKING OF MEMBERS: 2011-2014
TEAM AVG. APYTH. WIN EXP. NT'L RANK AVG. APYTH. WIN EXP. RANK NT'L RANK
Bellarmine 47.44% 35 35.25 34
Jacksonville 40.28% 43 43.25 44
Mercer 15.65% 58 56.75 58
VMI 14.25% 59 58.25 59
Furman N/A N/A N/A N/A
High Point N/A N/A N/A N/A
Richmond N/A N/A N/A N/A

Bellarmine

  • The Knights were a takeaway machine last season, and if Bellarmine chooses to press its opponents again in 2015, the Knights could raise a level of havoc in the Southern Conference that much of its membership will struggle to address. No team in the country had its opponents commit more turnovers on a per possession basis than the Knights in 2014, and Bellarmine's reality around opponent turnovers wasn't based exclusively on the Knights' opponents engaging in unforced turnovers:
    BELLARMINE'S OPPONENT TURNOVER PROFILE: 2014
    METRIC VALUE RANK
    Opponent Turnovers per 100 Defensive Opportunities 53.83 1
    Opponent Unforced Turnovers per 100 Defensive Opportunities 26.53 9
    Caused Turnovers per 100 Defensive Opportunities 27.30 6
    Turnover Margin +7.51 9
    To put this in further context relative to what this may mean for the Knights in the Southern Conference: The average ranking of the SoCon's five other teams in team turnovers per 100 offensive opportunities in 2014 is 57 with Mercer standing as the least turnover prone in the group (the Bears ranked 49th in the metric last season).

Furman

  • The Paladins have a ton of work to do after the team's inaugural run through Division I last season -- the team was one of the three worst in college lacrosse's highest level of play in 2014 -- and it's going to take time for Furman to develop into an entity that is ready to compete with the type of programs it hopes to threaten on a yearly basis. Yet, the Paladins do have something to look forward to in 2015 -- the start of Southern Conference competition and a heightened degree of competitiveness that the Paladins are expected to exhibit against league rivals. The Paladins were a much better team against opponents that will populate the SoCon this season than they were against non-league competition in 2014, and the difference is pretty notable:
    2014 FURMAN: CONFERENCE* V. NONCONFERENCE PERFORMANCE
    CONFERENCE NONCON
    OPPONENT RESULT OPP. LP RANKING OPPONENT RESULT OPP. LP RANKING
    High Point 7-15 (L) 48 Lehigh 6-13 (L) 17
    Richmond 10-13 (L) 56 North Carolina 4-19 (L) 5
    at VMI 13-12 (OT) (W) 66 at Air Force 6-15 (L) 23
    at Mercer 8-9 (OT) (L) 61 v. Army 2-12 (L) 20
    Jacksonville 11-13 (L) 52 Michigan 9-11 (L) 49
    at Bellarmine 7-13 (L) 37 at Georgetown 9-16 (L) 47
    Duke 4-19 (L) 1
    TOTAL 56-75 (1-5) TOTAL 40-105 (0-7)
    AVERAGE 9.3-12.5 53 AVERAGE 5.7-15.0 23
    *Includes Bellarmine as a conference opponent even though the Knights played in the ECAC in 2014.

High Point

  • The Panthers were the strongest team in the Atlantic Sun last season but a brain fart against Richmond in the Atlantic Sun Tournament final last spring robbed High Point of an opportunity to show the country just how strong the Panthers were in just their second season of existence. Interestingly, High Point's loss to the Spiders in May wasn't the only moment last spring where the Panthers failed to take care of business: Against Mercer in mid-March, the Panthers dropped a home game to the Bears in which LaxPower projected High Point as a three-goal favorite and a log5 analysis reflected the Panthers as a 70.14 percent favorite. Anything can happen in conference play (especially in a tournament scenario), but building a reputation for uneven performances against inferior competition isn't something that the Panthers want to pursue at this stage in the program's development. This is often the hardest aspect of program evolution and it isn't a ruinous point for the Panthers, but it is something to monitor.

Jacksonville

  • There was a lot to like about the Dolphins' offense last season -- Jacksonville shot the ball like a bunch of animals in 2014 -- but there was an area of offensive play that the Dolphins exhibited last year that raises concern about 2015: Jacksonville struggled at mitigating lost functional offensive opportunities. On an estimated basis, the Dolphins lost just over 14 functional offensive opportunities per 60 minutes of play, a mark that ranked 62 nationally in the metric. In terms of the team's ratio of functional offensive opportunities and lost functional offensive opportunities, the Dolphins lost about 51 percent of their estimated functional offensive opportunities through turnovers, a mark that ranked 63rd nationally. Considering that Jacksonville played at almost a five-possession deficit per 60 minutes of play last season, those lost functional opportunities robbed the Dolphins of a high volume of chances to make the scoreboard blink at an insane rate. Efficiency lies not only in shooting rate and scoring rate; it exists in the context of maximizing offensive opportunities, and Jacksonville struggled in that area last season. If the Dolphins are able to clean up this performance area, the team's ceiling could rise in important ways.

Mercer

  • The Bears were a massive overachiever last season. The difference between the team's actual winning percentage -- 50.00% -- and its adjusted Pythagorean win expectation value was 22.83, a mark that ranked at the top of the nation in 2014. Projected to win four games last year, Mercer pulled upsets against Richmond (an 11-7 victory in Macon) and High Point (a 10-9 victory in North Carolina) and blew out Boston University in what would eventually turn into a toss-up game in the eyes of math machines. That's an insane level of stones for a program that has existed for only a few moments in the grand scheme of college lacrosse, but it does signal a potential realignment of the universe coming into 2015. (It's also important to consider that Mercer played the nation's weakest schedule in 2014, and the team's 7-7 record is influenced by the level of competition that the Bears faced.) Kyle Hannan is doing some impressive work down in Georgia, but there is a level of caution about Mercer given the underlying characteristics of how the Bears got to the position they achieved last season.

Richmond

  • Woof:
    POSSESSION STARVATION FOR A TEAM THAT NEEDED TO FEAST
    METRIC VALUE NT'L RANK
    Opportunities per 60 Minutes Margin -5.03 61
    Faceoff Percentage 36.15% 65
    Clearing Percentage 87.83% 25
    Ride Percentage 13.56% 37
    Running a possession permutation on Richmond's profile (keeping all things static other than increasing the team's faceoff percentage to 50 percent), the Spiders' adjusted Pythagorean win expectation would rise to 45.24 percent from 35.69 percent, yielding an expected record of 8-9 on a 17-game schedule instead of a 6-11 expected record. Peter Moran -- the team's primary faceoff specialist last season -- returns for Richmond in 2015, and if he's able to improve on his 40-ish percent draw rate last year, it should make the Spiders even more dangerous as a second-year program with eyes toward making a second consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament.

VMI

  • Can the Keydets bag four kills this coming spring. It's possible! The program hasn't achieved four victories in the same season since 2012, but VMI will play four teams in 2015 -- Mount St. Mary's, Wagner, Furman, and Massachusetts-Lowell -- that could yield the Keydets a quartet of wins. These are not guaranteed victories for the Keydets -- VMI is likely in the same competitive tier of these four teams and toss-up games don't merit "We definitely got this!" statements -- but they are opportunities for wins, something that the Keydets deserve. No program should suffer through extended years of two-win lacrosse -- VMI, over the last 15 seasons has averaged a 3-10 record -- and watching the Keydets pop four victories in the same year would provide much needed good feelings around one of the hardest places to win in Division I lacrosse.

Argumentation

Four important conference games that will define the discussion.

  • GAME I: Bellarmine at High Point -- April 25

  • GAME II: Richmond at High Point -- April 11

  • GAME III: Richmond at Bellarmine -- April 18

  • GAME IV: Jacksonville at Bellarmine -- April 11

Description

Illustrating the landscape of the universe.

There look to be three tiers in the SoCon going into the coming spring: Tier I: High Point and Bellarmine, one program emerging as an entity while the other has established itself as a threat despite running under the radar, in tight quarters relative to each other; Tier II: Richmond, Jacksonville, and Mercer, a mess in the middle of the league that will likely throw hands between each other for the league's final two bids to its conference tournament; and Tier IV: Furman and VMI, both programs rubbing sticks together to try and create fire.

PREDICTED SOCON ORDER OF FINISH: 2015
RANK TEAM
1. High Point
2. Bellarmine
3. Richmond
4. Jacksonville
5. Mercer
6. Furman
7. VMI