The second Big Ten lacrosse regular season has come to a close, and what a season it was. For much of the year, it was probably the most consistent conference top to bottom in D1 lacrosse. With the ACC looking better as of late and likely to get four teams into the playoffs, it's reclaimed bragging rights as the premier conference in the nation (even though the B1G went 4-0 against the ACC in the NCAA tournament last year, but let's not let facts get in the way of things—also, no, the Ivy still isn't as good as either, sorry). But it's clear the B1G rising, and it's not just a two team conference. Far from it. This season gets 10 Delanys out of 10.
When the B1G was first announced as a lacrosse conference, a lot of people assumed it would just be year after year of the Maryland and Johns Hopkins show. If last year didn't prove that, then this year certainly has (Maryland didn't even make the title game last year, those cowards). Maryland has separated itself this year as the best team in the conference, but after that things get real interesting.
Rutgers, despite the loss to Ohio State this week, is probably the story of the year for the B1G. Most preseason predictions had them finishing either last or second to last. The kids from Jersey had different ideas, beating Hopkins on their way to the #2 tournament seed. Here are the final conference standings:
1. Maryland (5-0)
2. Rutgers (3-2)
3. Johns Hopkins (3-2)
4. Penn State (2-3)
5. Ohio State (2-3)
6. Michigan (0-5)
Rutgers gets the #2 seed over Hopkins by virtue of that win, and Penn State gets the #4 seed, and the final spot in the conference tournament, with their 6-5 win over Ohio State early last month.
At 7-8 overall, Ohio State isn't eligible for the NCAA tournament, but I think they're a better team than that record indicates. They lost to Towson, Notre Dame, Penn State, Hopkins, and Maryland by a combined 6 goals. The defense was solid all year, allowing a very respectable 9 goals per game, but the Buckeyes just couldn't generate enough offense to win close games. With Jesse King gone and Carter Brown now graduating, the Buckeyes will look to its rising senior class, led by the Canadian Dream Team of Austin Shanks, Eric Fannell, and Johnny Pearson, to put some more points on the board.
With Penn State in over Ohio State, the conference tournament board is set. Semi-final games will be this Thursday, May 5, at 5:30 pm and 8 pm at Homewood Field in Baltimore and televised on Big Ten Network. The final will be at Homewood on Saturday, May 7, at 6 pm on ESPN2. You read that right. ESPN2, not ESPNU. B1G things poppin. Let's get after it.
#1 Maryland (12-2, 5-0) v. #4 Penn State (8-6, 2-3)
Thursday, May 5, 5:30 pm ET, Big Ten Network
A rematch of a thrilling April overtime game in Happy Valley, this should be a good one. Both teams have chips on their shoulders, though they are very different types of chips, each with their own unique textures and flavor profiles. Maryland's chip is a Lay's Sour Cream and Onion—popular and tasty, but straight and to the point. Maryland didn't reach the B1G title game last year. While Tillman's boys are always shooting for a national championship, you'd think they'd like to avoid missing out on the conference championship for a second straight year. As good as this team is, I think, that they think, that they still have a lot to prove.
Penn State's chip is more like a McClure's Spicy Pickle chip—red-hot, angry, and often left out from elite chip gatherings. The Nittany Lions have not had a normal season by any definition of the word "normal." They beat the reigning champions in Denver—and I meant thoroughly beat Denver—in March. Then they lost three straight games in a row by a goal each, two of those in overtime. There's no doubt at all that Penn State is a good team. They can score in bunches and have weapons all over the field. They play tough and aggressive and athletic and they're not an easy team to put away, given the three straight one-goal losses. Last time they played Maryland, they dominated the first half, before letting the Terps slowly creep back into things, as turtles tend to do.
It's not a stretch to say Maryland is playing like the best team in the country right now. They haven't lost since an early March contest against Notre Dame. The defense is elite, allowing less than 8 goals per game. The offense has found its groove, scoring in double digits five games in a row.
I was at the Maryland-Hopkins game this weekend. The Terps' offense is terrifyingly patient and precise. They bore you to death until they sense that the defense's guard is down for a split second, and then they pounce, like some kind of psychotic cheetah. If they sense the refs might put the stall warning on, they'll rip a shot in the general direction of the cage to make it appear as if they are actually playing offense in order to prevent a stall from being called, but don't be fooled. It is not offense. They are merely lulling their prey to sleep before they murder them and eat their babies.
Ultimately, I expect another close game, but Maryland is just playing too well at the moment. The one thing working in Penn State's favor is faceoffs—Maryland's top guy Austin Henningsen is banged up and hasn't played in a few games. Hopkins won 17-22 faceoffs against the Terps. As good as they are, I'm not sure they can survive another game against a good team winning so few faceoffs.
As far as at-large considerations go, Maryland is already safely in no matter what happens. Penn State is probably bubble out right now, but a win over Maryland would give them their second top 5 win and it'd be real tough for the selection committee to ignore that in a year when those types of wins are hard to come by.
Prediction: Maryland 12, Penn State 9
#2 Rutgers (10-4, 3-2) v. #3 Johns Hopkins (8-5, 3-2)
Thursday, May 5, 8pm ET, Big Ten Network
Another game with various shoulder-chips, but I'll spare you the horrendous metaphors this time. Rutgers is out to prove once and for all that they belong in the top tier of this conference and that their excellent regular season wasn't just a flash in the pan. A second win over the Blue Jays would certainly achieve that.
The Jays, meanwhile, want to avenge a 16-9 loss to Rutgers in Jersey. The Scarlet Knights totally dismantled a hapless Hopkins defense, routinely finding themselves wide open on Brock Turnbaugh's front porch. The Jays' defense has played somewhat better since then, but they'll need to be better than "somewhat better" in order to take down Rutgers this time.
Rutgers' trio of Scott Bieda, Jules Heningburg, and Adam Charalambides is one of the best attack units in the country. They can beat you multiple ways—off the dodge, backdoor cuts, crisp passing, you name it. They can put the ball in the back of the net. This is a very good ability to have, because the goal of lacrosse is to score. Brecht's boys have a sneaky good defense too, but that is partially a reflection of their weak out of conference schedule. With all due respect to two of College Crosse's favorite squads, Wagner and NJIT, it's not exactly difficult to hold them under 10 goals. Goalie Kris Alleyne has also been great all year, saving at a .522 clip.
Now let me ruminate on my Jays for a moment. I don't make excuses, so the following is totally not an excuse for Hopkins' inconsistent play in 2016: The entire midfield is gone. Like, the entire unit. Joel "God of Face Dodges" Tinney was suspended for the year. The speedy dodger and initiator Connor Reed tore his ACL before the season started. Promising freshman Alex Concannon tore his ACL in the first game against Navy. Freshmen phenom Drew Supinski tore his ACL in the aforementioned loss to Rutgers last month. I think I just tore my ACL writing this paragraph. And now junior middie Kieran Eissler has missed his last two games with an unspecified injury—it's unclear if he'll be back for the B1G semis.
In spite of that, the Jays offense has hummed right along. This is in no small part due to the magic of Wizard Bobby Benson, who is fantastic at adjusting his schemes to the personnel available. With one more goal, Ryan "The Rifleman" Brown becomes Johns Hopkins' second all time leading scorer. Shack Stanwick has quietly had a terrific sophomore campaign with 52 points and 2.6 assists per game, good for third in the country (side note: how Shack was not on the list of 25 Tewaaraton finalists is patently absurd—following in his older brother Wells' footsteps, the kid continues to get no respect). Slick attackman Wilkins Dismuke and clutch middie John Crawley have helped keep the Jays offense one of the better groups in the country, though the Maryland game revealed that they don't really have anyone who can consistently beat their man 1-on-1.
Remember, I don't make excuses, so the following is also not an excuse for poor defensive play: the defense has exactly one returning starter in Nick Fields (two if you count junior SSDM Joe Carlini, who played a lot last year). Freshmen Pat Foley and Robert Kuhn and junior transfer Austin Spencer are all new to Petro's system, which I'm told is fairly complex and not easy to master. Still, with one of the great defensive lacrosse minds at the helm, you'd think they'd be better. They'll certainly have to be if they want to avenge the loss to Rutgers and make the B1G final.
With a win over Rutgers, Hopkins should be NCAA tournament bound. A loss and they'll be firmly on the bubble at 8-6, hoping that the other conference tournaments don't yield any major upsets that take away at-large bids. Rutgers looks to be out right now, but another win over Hopkins would put them back in the conversation.
Prediction: Hopkins 14, Rutgers 12