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A Healthy Ben Reeves May Be Enough To Save Yale's Season.

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Big Ben isn't 100% but he's healthy enough to be back on the field and that's bad news for Yale's opponents.

Midway through March, the college lacrosse landscape looks much different than anyone anticipated. Two preseason unranked teams (Hofstra and Army) are currently in the top-10. Five unbeaten teams (Boston University, Hofstra, Ohio State, Penn State and Rutgers) remain.

Perhaps the most surprising storyline is that three preseason top-10 teams (Yale, Navy and Brown) are currently unranked. The Midshipmen have been bombarded with injuries to key players (Casey Rees, Jack Ray). Brown sorely misses goalie Jack Kelly, face-off specialist Will Gural and the rest of its Class of 2016. Of the preseason top-10 teams who fell out of the poll, Yale appears most likely to turn its season around.

Offensively, the Elis returned four of their top five scorers, including Tewaaraton finalist Ben Reeves (45G, 34A in 2016). Their freshman class has made an impact immediately. Jackson Morrill (8G, 5A) and Matt Gaudet (9G, 1A) are both starting on attack, while Recruit Rundown’s ninth-ranked freshman, Lucas Cotler, has been running out of the box.

The talent is there, yet last year’s 10th-ranked offense (36.0%) has dropped to 26th in the country (30.9%) per Patrick McEwen. It’s early, and it’s entirely possible that, when we look back on the season in May, this will have been a blip in the Elis’ season reminiscent of UNC’s 1-3 stretch in early March last spring.

Yale brought in a new offensive coordinator, Andrew Stimmel. It takes time for players to learn a new system -- and for a new coordinator to learn his personnel. Making matters worse for Stimmel and the Elis, they’ve been playing with an injured star and against some funky defensive matchups. This weekend, Reeves looked as healthy as he has all season -- and through the Elis struggles, they’ve found the right spots to put him in against any type of defense they may face going forward.

After missing the Maryland game with a hamstring injury, Reeves returned for the Bulldog Bowl against Bryant. Head coach Mike Pressler’s Bryant team relied heavily on its well-known zone defense, using it on 20 of 25 settled possessions. When Reeves finished the possession as the passer or shooter, the Elis were 2-for-10; when he wasn’t involved, the Elis offense was blanked (0-for-10).

Reeves spent almost the entire Bryant game below goal-line extended looking to pick apart the zone defense as a quarterback (0G, 4A). He pushed toward the cage a couple times, but the defense was packed in so tight that his passes had to be skipped across the field or squeezed to the backside pipe. The former gives the defense time to recover; the latter needs to navigate a sea of sticks to produce a shot.

The best version of the Yale offense reveals itself when Ben Reeves becomes an equal threat to shoot or pass. He’s a dual threat behind the cage against man-to-man defense, but against zone, leaving Reeves behind at X fails to utilize his athleticism. Essentially, you’re asking him to wait patiently for a zone defender to ball-watch. Bryant only fell asleep on the inside twice on 20 possessions. Both times, it was because Reeves baited a second defender behind the cage or into a “Please reconnect your controller” perma-slide.

Offensive coordinator Andrew Stimmel bumped Reeves up to the high wing of the zone offense against UMass. The Elis’ zone offense looked better, scoring two goals on 10 possessions (including 2-for-4 when Reeves finished the play).

From the high wing Reeves was able to work on a short-stick. By starting on the wing and moving toward the middle of the field (rather than starting at X and moving upfield), Reeves forced the adjacent defenders to commit earlier. It’s Reeves’ initial dodge that gets the UMass zone rotating, and fittingly, it’s Reeves who benefits from the ball movement he started.

The Minutemen threw less zone at the Elis in the second half, but when they did, Reeves made them pay with a stat line (4G, 1A) that nearly mirrored the one he posted against Bryant. As an initiator and a zone-busting stretch shooter, Reeves’ skillset proved to be diverse enough to impact a game through a hamstring injury.

When UMass went to man-to-man defense, we still didn’t see vintage Ben Reeves blowing by his defender to get his left hand free. He buried two goals -- both unassisted -- but neither involved winning a one-on-one matchup. One was scored after attacking the goalie’s side on a hangup, and on the other Reeves gained a step with a pick on the wing.

He hasn’t looked 100% healthy yet, but against Fairfield he looked close. For the first time this spring we saw some of that burst that made him a Tewaaraton finalist in 2016. From the very first whistle, Reeves was confident attacking his matchup in all different situations. On this quick restart, he takes his man to the cup with ease.

Earlier this season, Reeves told ESPNU’s Paul Carcaterra that this is his sweet spot. Humbly, Reeves refers to himself as “lanky” enough to get this shot off. Scouts in all major sports search tirelessly for wingspans like Reeves’. It’s what helps him “keep the stick away and get this shot off even if he’s right on my hip, so that’s kind of my go-to,” said Reeves.

Off the restart, Reeves got to his go-to spot with pure speed. Out of this hangup, he uses a rocker step to get there. Both work -- and both are moves we didn’t see a less-than-100% Reeves use against Bryant or UMass.

Saturday’s overtime win over the Stags was Reeves’ (3G, 2A) most complete game yet. As Ivy League play gets underway this Saturday, it couldn’t have come at a better time. The Elis warm up with Cornell (0-4) before hitting the road against arguably the Ivy’s two best teams: Princeton (4-1) and Penn (3-2). These next three weeks will make or break the Elis’ season.

Ben Reeves (efficiency by defense)

Defense Reeves as passer Reeves as shooter Reeves Total Other Yale Offense
Defense Reeves as passer Reeves as shooter Reeves Total Other Yale Offense
Fast Break 2-for-4 (50.0%) 1-for-3 (33.3%) 3-for-7 (42.9%) 2-for-6 (33.3%)
Man-to-Man 2-for-7 (28.6%) 4-for-6 (66.7%) 6-for-13 (46.2%) 9-for-32 (28.1%)
Zone 3-for-8 (37.5%) 2-for-7 (28.6%) 5-for-15 (33.3%) 0-for-16 (0.0%)
Total 7-for-19 (36.8%) 7-for-16 (43.8%) 14-for-35 (40.0%) 11-for-54 (20.4%)