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2015 College Lacrosse Preview: The Go Teams

If you're looking for two teams with verve, you can do worse than these two machines.

There isn't a universal definition of "playing fast" despite Nike's best effort to cram that notion down your throat. Coaches from across Division I come out every preseason and say that they want their team to "play fast." While some of these coaches have the actual intent to press their teams to accelerate a game's volition and create 110 yards of heat with end-to-end rushes, the reality is that many of these coaches define "playing fast" as zipping the ball, taking advantage of quick restarts, buzzing around the offensive end in settled six-on-six scenarios, pressing the crease off of a faceoff win, triggering a volume of shots even if those shots won't create a change of possession, etc. "Playing fast," for many, is not playing lots of possessions but rather moving quickly and creating desired actions. These aspects of play can create "pace," but it does not automatically create a heightened possessions per 60 minutes of play (what tempo enthusiasts call "pace").

As an example, consider Loyola. In the lede to a Lacrosse Magazine piece this past October on the 'Hounds, Charley Toomey noted his theory of "playing fast":

The refrain from Loyola coach Charley Toomey this fall has been that there may be a new cast of characters involved but the Greyhounds are still planning on stay true to who they are. "Play fast," he said, echoing the up-tempo, high shot output philosophy they've ridden up college lacrosse's national ladder.

Loyola did exhibit a high-shot philosophy last season (the team ranked eighth nationally in shots per offensive opportunity (1.21)), but the team was also 35th nationally in possessions per 60 minutes of play at 64.25 (the Greyhounds haven't ranked higher than 29th in the last four years in possessions per 60 minutes of play). It's not that Toomey is off base in what he considers "playing fast," it's just that his definition of scorching earth is a little different from those that define "pace" as tons of possessions -- from both teams! -- crammed into a game.

This piece is about two teams that have embraced the there-is-no-limit-to-possession-quantity approach to "playing fast" -- Albany and Robert Morris. Both of these teams have been pace-positive in recent seasons, averaging a top five finish among programs that participated at the Division I level from 2011 to 2014. Both teams have been competitive on a national level over the last four seasons, making the pace they have played with more enjoyable than teams like VMI, Mercer, Dartmouth, and Detroit, programs that have played loads of possessions per 60 minutes of play in each of the last four seasons but have not had the kind of relative success that the Danes and Colonials have exhibited. Other teams that have a greater national profile for a willingness to create possessions through their style of "pace" -- Virginia, Cornell, Duke, Syracuse, etc. -- are still watchable concerns in the context of seeking programs willing to rocket up and down the field, but those teams all maintain four-year "pace" averages (and average "pace" rankings) behind Albany and Robert Morris.

THE GO TEAMS

ALBANY AND ROBERT MORRIS: HOT FIRE
TEAM '11 PACE RANK '12 PACE RANK '13 PACE RANK '14 PACE RANK AVG. PACE RANK AVG. PACE RANK RANK
Albany 71.60 14 69.33 12 78.58 1 74.44 1 73.49 1 7.00 2
Robert Morris 72.32 12 73.90 4 70.20 9 71.19 4 71.90 4 7.25 3

Some brief notes on both teams:

  • Albany: The Great Danes have emerged as a tempo-generating sociopath. With Scott Marr's lack of fear of playing a huge volume of possessions per 60 minutes of play knowing that the Thompson Trio could make the scoreboard blink at an insane rate, Albany has cemented itself as a tempo freak. Importantly, the Danes' incredible tempo marks over the last two seasons aren't attributable to sloppiness (a factor that often generates increased possessions per 60 minutes of competition). Rather, Albany has (1) maximized its clearing opportunities (the team's clearing percentage in both 2013 and 2014 were in the top 10 nationally), (2) committed to generating extra possessions through a ferocious ride (the team ranked fourth in ride rate in 2014 and were 21st in the same measure in 2013), and (3) run with such an efficient offense (the team ranked second in adjusted offensive efficiency in 2014 and were seventh in the same metric in 2013) that their games necessarily generate additional possessions due to the team's scoring rate. This is a systemic desire to create end-to-end action, missing only a hyper-aggressive defense that creates forced turnovers in settled and semi-settled situations in the defensive box. It's unclear how much Marr will permit his team to create combustion in 2015 -- the team lost around 57 percent of its starts from 2014 -- but even if Albany slows down to its average "pace" from 2011 and 2012 (about 70 possessions per 60 minutes of play), the Great Danes will still stand as one of the fastest teams in the nation.
  • Robert Morris: The Colonials exist in a weird place: Overshadowed in their own conference by Bryant and rarely recognized on a national level due to the team's competitive position in the national landscape, Bobby Mo's philosophy of playing in a blur rarely percolates to the forefront of the national consciousness. Yet, Robert Morris remains a beautiful prophet of speed, standing as only one of five other teams (Albany, VMI, Mercer, Detroit, and Virginia) to rank in the top five in "pace" in at least two of the last four seasons. The most interesting aspect of the Colonials' desire to play buckets of possessions on a 60-minute basis is the team's stalwart dedication to doing so: The standard deviation of Robert Morris' "pace" values over the last four seasons ranks sixth nationally, a ranking that is 14 positions higher than the next-closest team that has averaged at least 70 possessions per 60 minutes of play over the last four seasons (Dartmouth) (the standard deviation of Dartmouth's and the Colonials' "pace" rank from 2011 to 2014 is comparable). Robert Morris goes fast and does it year-in and year-out with little variance, a seismic force of unique thinking that runs opposite to how teams have generally deflated pace over the years. Andrew McMinn hasn't been able to push Bobby Mo into the NCAA Tournament, but he has earned recognition for his willingness to make lacrosse a blazing John Coltrane solo in Western Pennsylvania.