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Ohio State Sticks to the Middle

Sticking to the middle has helped Ohio State get to the top this year.

The Ohio State Buckeyes have all the ingredients of a championship team. Jake Withers is winning 67.2% of face-offs (3rd in NCAA). Tom Carey is stopping 53.3% of shots (17th in NCAA). Only five other teams (Albany, Richmond, Bryant, Loyola and St. Joseph’s) have top-20 players at each position.

Before the 2015 season, Paul Carcaterra tweeted that the last team to win without an alpha male attackman was the 2007 Johns Hopkins squad; it still holds true. Steve Pontrello, Connor Cannizzaro, Jordan Wolf (x2), Justin Ward, Steele Stanwick, Ned Crotty, Kenny Nims, and Mike Leveille gave their respective championship teams a presence behind the cage.

Johns Hopkins overcame their lack of an alpha male attackman at X with midfielder Paul Rabil taking on the quarterback role in 2007. Offensively, Ohio State makes up for its lack of a presence at X with an alpha male on each wing. Left-handed Eric Fannell (28G, 26A) and right-handed Tre Leclaire (41G, 14A) can both initiate from the low wings.

Actions from the wing force defenses to make uncomfortable slides. Defenses install invert zones to cover up the crease and the weak-side as they thwart drives from X. The slow developing nature of top-down feeds favors the defense, unless you have a once-in-a-generation passing midfielder like Paul Rabil or Tom Schreiber or Myles Jones.

Wing dodges are relatively uncommon. Run them with Canadians who are accustomed to shaking their defender while staying on their side of the cage, and they become a mess to defend.

To slide or not to slide when your on-ball defender forces Fannell underneath? He has proven his ability to burn you in either situation.

The 6-foot-1, 220 lb. senior out of St. Catharines is reminiscent of two former left-handed Buckeyes: Jesse King (’15) and Logan Schuss (’13). Ohio State’s constant picking and re-picking often produces favorable matchups for Fannell. If they don’t, then the matchups usually favor Leclaire on the other side.

Of Tre Leclaire’s 35 even-strength goals, 18 have been unassisted (per analyticslacrosse.com). Check out the list of players with more unassisted goals – it’s impressive. Only a freshman, Leclaire can get to the middle of the field by navigating pick-and-rolls or by brute strength.

The importance of strong-side shooting was the biggest takeaway from Atlanta Blaze head coach Dave Huntley and Director of Analytics Jesse McNulty’s presentation “Lacrosse by the Numbers” at the US Lacrosse Convention. When your stick is to the middle, your shooting percentage skyrockets. Lefties shot 22.9% on their wrong-side and 34.2% on their strong-side last year in MLL; righties shot 26.1% versus 29.7%.

Having a right-handed counterpart like Leclaire has added an extra element to the Ohio State offense. Their sets are so wide – and their field balance is so symmetrical – that defenses are stretched into impossible positions, like trying to arch your back and keep it flat at the same time. In two passes, the Buckeyes move from outside the hash marks to the other side while keeping their sticks to the middle to increase their shooting angle.

Johnny Pearson (30.1% shooting) cashed in both of those opportunities, but there’s a whole cast of characters capable of finishing. Lukas Buckley (39.4%), Jack Jasinski (38.7%), Leclaire (38.3%), Colin Chell (35.2%), JT Blubaugh (35.1%), Tyler Pfister (34.6%), Austin Shanks (30.3%) and Fannell (30.1%) all shoot better than 30.0%.

When you see the adjacent slides to eyes that the Ohio State ball-carriers can bait, you realize why. Fielding an equal amount of righties and lefties allows shooters to catch and shoot immediately. They don’t need to open up their hips or square up the cage; there is no motion wasted.

The many phases of Ohio State’s offensive attack are a headache to prepare for. Both Withers (4G, 5A) and short-stick defensive midfielder Ryan Terefenko (5G, 6A) will stay and play. When associate head coach and offensive coordinator Brad Ross deploys them as pickers, opponents refuse to chip, hedge or switch. It’s a one-dimensional pick defense. Notre Dame’s Bryan Costabile, Maryland’s Will Bonaparte and Denver’s Tyler Pace all have the same thing in mind: I need to get the hell off the field.

The Buckeyes will host Loyola to open the NCAA tournament. The Greyhounds’ defense is ninth in adjusted defensive efficiency. They’re turning opponents over on 44.2% of possessions (5th highest rate in NCAA) and squandering a paltry 56.0% shooting efficiency (6th in NCAA).

On paper, the Buckeyes’ offense and the Greyhounds’ defense will be a clash of the titans. Watch for the game within the game: An offense of one-handed players trying to break down a defense that would give an opposing player the middle of the field before giving him his strong hand.