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2015 College Lacrosse Preview: Face-Offs and Three Teams

There are varying degrees of importance to faceoff play, and these three teams seem to have a heightened issue with performance at the dot this coming year.

Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Faceoff play probably receives a disproportionate amount of chatter compared to its true-ish relevance to a team's overall win capacity. Michael Mauboussin -- who is probably smarter than you and I put together -- did an analysis of Division I men's lacrosse statistics not too long ago and discovered that faceoff percentage (as an independent variable) correlated somewhat lightly to win-loss percentage (the dependent variable), holding an R2 percentage of 35.0. (Mauboussin also notes that the R2 value in his examination was the highest value for faceoffs "in years.") As Mauboussin writes:

In terms of explaining wins, face-offs are well down the list of factors.

* * * * *

Here’s one way to think about it. Over 80 percent of teams win between 40 and 60 percent of their face-offs. There are, on average, 22 face-offs per game. So the differential between the really good teams (.6 * 22 = 13.2) and really bad teams (.4 * 22 = 8.8) is about 4.4 possessions. This translates into about one goal per game. So the teams with the really good face-off units contribute about one win per year, with the very best contributing about two wins, and those with the poor units detract about one win per year, with the worst detracting two or three wins. But again, face-offs don’t add or subtract many wins for the vast majority of the teams over a season.

Still, most observers believe that face-offs are crucial to the game. The way to reconcile the perceived importance of face-offs with their actual importance is to look at the pattern of face-off wins and losses. You may remember from a statistics class that there are many more streaks in random series of coin tosses than most people expect. For example, if you flip a coin 300 times – a sum lower than the average number of face-offs a team takes during a season – there is almost a 100 percent probability that you’ll get a run of at least six heads or tails in a row. There is also streakiness in lacrosse face-offs. Even a team that wins 50 percent of its face-offs over a season will have wins and losses come in bunches. These streaks are momentum changers in the short-run and hence are perceived as very significant.

Of course, lacrosse face-offs are not the equivalent of random coin tosses. Some face-off men are better than others, although there is a lot of transitivity (i.e., player A beat B, player B beats C, player C beats A).2 But it is reasonable to think about face-offs as coin tosses that are biased by the quality of the face-off men. Even if one player has an edge, face-off wins will show a pattern of streaks. Over a season, these streaks tend to even out, which is why the aggregate effect is not large. But for a given game, the effect can be enormous. This is one facet of the game that reflects a large dose of randomness.

The rest of this piece is for those that "believe that faceoffs are crucial to the game."

BUCKNELL

Faceoff Profile:

BUCKNELL'S 2014 FACEOFF PROFILE
METRIC VALUE NT'L RANK
Faceoff Percentage 34.19% 66
Estimated Percentage of Offensive Opportunities from Faceoff Wins 22.48% 67
Estimated Percentage of Defensive Opportunities from Faceoff Losses 40.95% 13
Estimated Possession Margin per 60 Minutes -1.79 49
Top Faceoff Returnee -- Eric Monfort 37.35% (31-83)

Potential 2015 Faceoff Importance:

  • The Bison's faceoff situation couldn't have been much worse than it was in 2014, and the team's struggles to compete at the dot was a theoretical drain on the program's potential success last season: If Bucknell had drew at 50.16 percent last spring (about 32nd nationally), the team's adjusted Pythagorean win expectation value -- based on adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency values consistent with the team's actual faceoff percentage -- would rise from 51.96 percent (29th nationally) to 62.10 percent (23rd nationally), increasing the team's expected record from 8-7 to 9-6. That doesn't seem like a huge increase in win expectation, but when you consider that the Bison played three games against opponents in which Bucknell was in a toss-up situation and held an even goal margin in those games while going 1-2, the Bison may have left some opportunities on the table -- at least in part -- due to the team's struggle at the dot (Bucknell went 16-56 on the draw in these three games, never winning over 40 percent of their attempts).

STONY BROOK

Faceoff Profile:

STONY BROOK 2014 FACEOFF PROFILE
METRIC VALUE NT'L RANK
Faceoff Percentage 61.02% 4
Estimated Percentage of Offensive Opportunities from Faceoff Wins 49.25% 1
Estimated Percentage of Defensive Opportunities from Faceoff Losses 35.97% 39
Estimated Possession Margin per 60 Minutes +4.17 5
Top Faceoff Returnee -- Jay Lindsay 47.37% (9-19)

Potential 2015 Face-Off Importance:

  • Kyle Rowe was a mule for the Seawolves last season: In his freshman campaign, the faceoff specialist won 62.47 percent of his draws and helped Stony Brook increase its faceoff percentage from 2013 to 2014 by over 20 percent (and, in turn, helped the Seawolves go from a team that played at a five-possession deficit per 60 minutes of play to one that held a four-possession advantage in the same metric in 2014). Rowe was a phenomenal coup for Stony Brook's possession-generation woes -- the Seawolves earned 249 offensive opportunities from a clearing postures last spring; Rowe, himself, won 248 draws last season -- but all of the promise that Rowe held for Stony Brook going into 2015 has vanished: Rowe transferred to Duke in the offseason to assume Brendan Fowler's place in the Devils' faceoff universe. This has created a difficult situation for the Seawolves: Stony Brook returns two players that took at least 10 draws last season -- Frank Lucatuorto and Jay Lindsay -- and those cats held a combined win rate of 46.67 percent on only 30 aggregated attempts. Lucatuorto is the more experienced of the two players, but (1) he shouldered the majority of the Seawolves' faceoff responsibilities in 2013 en route to a 42.28 percent faceoff win rate, only slightly exceeding the team's overall draw value of 40.43 percent (a mark that ranked 56th nationally), and (2) Lucatuorto has moved down and been running with a pole since last season. Resolution will need to come from somewhere or the Seawolves could be staring at a season of running into the wind.

DETROIT

Faceoff Profile:

DETROIT 2014 FACEOFF PROFILE
METRIC VALUE NT'L RANK
Faceoff Percentage 40.71% 56
Estimated Percentage of Offensive Opportunities from Faceoff Wins 28.16% 61
Estimated Percentage of Defensive Opportunities from Faceoff Losses 37.30% 32
Estimated Possession Margin per 60 Minutes -3.20 52
Top Faceoff Returnee -- Damien Hicks 44.04% (85-193)

Potential 2015 Face-Off Importance:

  • Detroit has had a faceoff problem for a while now: In 2011, the team drew at 40.88 percent (54th nationally) and earned 26.57 percent (57th nationally) of their offensive opportunities from faceoff victories; in 2012, the team drew at 42.82 percent (52nd nationally) and earned 28.25 percent (57th nationally) of their offensive opportunities from faceoff victories; and in 2013, the team drew at 47.89 percent (38th nationally) and earned 30.93 percent (49th nationally) of their offensive opportunities from faceoff victories. The team's lack of offensive opportunity generation from faceoff victories isn't a new issue for the Titans, but looking at the team's profile over the last few seasons, Detroit's inability to consistently compete at the dot exacerbates two other issues:
    1. The Titans have averaged a 77.37 clearing percentage over the last four seasons (with an average ranking in that metric of 59th nationally). With such a high volume of offensive opportunities inuring from clearing postures and Detroit struggling at converting those postures into functional possessions in the offensive box, the Titans have (1) robbed themselves of opportunities to scorch twine and make the scoreboard blink, and (2) further robbed themselves of scoring opportunities, aggravating the team's inability to create offensive opportunities through faceoff wins. Basically, Detroit has been starving itself of functional offensive opportunities through a combination of poor faceoff play and uneven clearing performances.
    2. The Titans have been a turnover machine over the last four seasons, pitching the ball away on an average of almost 58 percent of their offensive opportunities (with an average ranking of 59th nationally in that metric) while seeing an estimated 51.16 percent of their functional offensive opportunities lost through a giveaway over the last four years (the team holds an average ranking of 58th in that metric). Detroit has needed offensive opportunity volume to erase the team's turnover issues, and a failure to generate additional offensive possessions through faceoff victories has stymied the team's ability to function at an offensive level that permits a berth wide enough for the team to generate the kind of scoring it desires.