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Syracuse Lacrosse Roundtable: Another Early NCAA Exit Edition

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In the wake of Syracuse's upset loss to Hopkins in the NCAA Quarterfinals, the TNIAAM crew tries to separate fact from fiction in discussions about where the program goes from here.

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

A couple weeks ago, Brian wrote a piece stating that the pressure was on for Syracuse men's lacrosse to do something big this post-season. In the wake of yet another Final Four-less finish, is this season a disappointment?

Brian Tahmosh: It's without question a disappointment. This was the least-flawed Syracuse team since the 2009 championship. They were built for a deep run and capable of beating both offensive and defensive minded teams, and they just didn't get it done. The expectations were sky high and they fell well short of them. I don't really know what else to say. This one may be the most disappointing exit in the last six years.

Kevin Wall:Yes, it is a disappointment because I think this was a team talented enough to win a title. To come up short against Hopkins stings, not because we are nervous about the future, but because this team had a very good chance to win it all. Overall, it should be noted that Syracuse had an excellent season, so the disappointment is relative.

Jim Simmons: First off, expectations were incredibly high for this team. It was truly amazing how Ben Williams’ success was able to mask significant defensive issues for the majority of the season. I think that not going to Championship Weekend is disappointing, but I’m not sure that losing a one-goal game to SU’s biggest rival, a rivalry that is the most significant in all of the sport, is a bad loss.

As usually happens when Syracuse misses out on a Final Four, there are some folks calling for John Desko's head. Warranted or out of whack?

Brian: Listen, Desko deserves some criticism for a disappointing end to a season that had a lot of promise, and it's not the first time this has happened. He's not infallible. That being said, it's absolutely insane to seriously consider firing him. This is not a program on the decline. Following the last championship season in 2009, the Orange have gone 77-24 (.762), while Duke has gone a comparable 89-28 (.761). They've been a 1 or 2 seed every season but one in that stretch. They've lost three disappointing games since 2009, all by one goal, and all going down to the final second or overtime. They also won a few exciting games that went down to the wire (Yale and Denver in 2013) to make it all the way to the championship game with a team that had glaring flaws. You're simply not going to win them all in a sport where it's single-game elimination. I'm not calling for a coach's head when he's won five national titles because he came out on the losing end in three tight games in six years. The sample size of failure is still very small in the grand scheme of things, even though six years feels like an eternity for Syracuse. Other than Duke, no other program has soared past Syracuse. Sure Notre Dame and Denver have made more Final Fours recently, but neither has broken through for a championship so the recent gap is not very large, if it's there at all.

Kevin: A bit premature in my opinion. I understand the emotional reaction, the disappointment from the fans, and the length of time since Syracuse last won a title, but I don’t think it’s a situation where suddenly Desko can no longer coach. Part of the appeal of Syracuse Lacrosse is the longevity of the coaching staff, and how close the alumni are to the program. Making a change, just to make a change could become a disaster.

Jim: I’ve been a Tennessee football fan for as long as I’ve been alive (Ed. Note: You're fired). I was born into it, and I actually became a Syracuse fan as a kid by watching the Vols play at the Carrier Dome. In 2008, I watched UT ship out long time head coach Phillip Fulmer. That decision split the fans tremendously, and almost destroyed its booster base. Tennessee then went out and hired Lane Kiffin. After one year, Kiffin had to be escorted out of the campus following an announcement that he was quitting to go to USC. Then we had the Derek Dooley era…yeah. It wasn’t until 2012, nearly four years after the firing of Fulmer, that the program found a good fit in Butch Jones. Tennessee isn’t that bad of a comparison either, it is a long standing program that has only had a handful of coaches in its existence. My point is this, anyone can give me reasons to fire a coach, but no one can predict what is around the corner. If you fire Desko you risk sending the program into a tailspin, and I have no idea what comes after. No I don’t think it’s warranted, he has earned his position.

Syracuse hasn't won a National Title since 2009, making it the longest title drought since before 1983. Even if firing Desko seems silly, surely something has to change, right? Or is this just the new normal?

Brian: Virginia hasn't made the Final Four since 2011, Hopkins hadn't made it since 2008 until yesterday, and Duke came off back-to-back championships and got demolished at home by a mediocre Ohio State team. It's true, not that many teams are making the Final Four, and you're still seeing some combination of the old guard plus Notre Dame and Denver every year. But every game is becoming infinitely harder to win. When the tournament expanded in 2004, the seeded teams won 22 of the first 24 games in the opening round. Since 2010, the seeded teams are just 33-15 in the first round, averaging more than two losses per year. Notre Dame battled to the very end against Towson this year. Maryland would have gone to overtime against Yale if instant replay existed for goal line calls. Denver had to fight back from a seven-goal deficit at home in the second round. No one cruises into the Final Four anymore, and good teams are going to bow out earlier than expected. Nothing dramatic needs to change for Syracuse. They built a great team this year. They just needed to play better on Sunday than they did. And with the depth of competition, you can't have an off day and advance in the NCAA Tournament anymore.

Kevin: Some people seem to struggle with the new reality, which is that talent is more spread out due to increased scholarship opportunities. In the 80s and 90s, Syracuse seemed to replace every lost All-American with another All-American. I’ve heard people say that some years, the 2nd team at SU was good enough to make the Final Four. In today’s game, this isn’t happening as more scholarship opportunities are available, and bigger schools are making a commitment to the sport. Growth of lacrosse has a lot of positive aspects, but maintaining a dynasty isn’t one of them.

Jim: What do you change? Can you recruit better? I don’t think you can make this program any more attractive than it already is. You are seeing an increase in participation at the collegiate level and an increase in talent across the board. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but this may be the new normal.

What is the missing ingredient for SU that's needed to get them back to the Final Four on a regular basis?

Brian: Defense. In the early part of the season, this looked like the best defensive unit SU has put out there since the 2008-2011 run. Turns out that group was winning with smoke and mirrors early in the season and got exposed in the end. Giving up 17 goals to North Carolina and 14 to Duke in the ACC Tournament should have been a warning, and I know I probably ignored it a little too much. Specifically, the team has lacked depth at defense, typically having one elite defender and patching together the rest, a far cry from the deep Sid Smith, Evan Brady, Kyle Guadagnolo, Matt Tierney, John Lade defenses the last title runs had.

Kevin: Balance. The margin of error in a single-elimination tournament is small. To advance and win even two games has become incredibly challenging for any team. I don’t think you can rely on just one aspect of the game to overcome weaknesses in other areas (as we saw last year with face-offs). To be a Final Four team, Syracuse will need to be solid in all areas of the game. I think the Ensley Athletic Center will help the team as full practices are now an option from the start of January.

Jim: A third defender. Sounds ridiculous, but I didn’t see one on the field yesterday. You need a physical defender who is quick on his feet and understands the slide packages. The goalie is supposed to be the leader of your defense, he is supposed to be the center of communication. I think towards the end Wardwell may have had some trouble with that, but it won’t get any better with Warren Hill next year. Therefore, you need someone to step up and be the leader on the defensive side of the ball.