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Syracuse men’s lacrosse vs. North Carolina preview

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The next three weekends are going to be a Thanos-sized gauntlet for the Orange. It all starts this Saturday at 3 PM on ACC Network.

North Carolina v Syracuse

Alright, let’s start with the most important thing.

On Wednesday afternoon, the No. 9 Syracuse Orange men’s lacrosse twitter account decided to drop a little teaser for Saturday’s game against No. 5 North Carolina Tar Heels.

My Goodness!!!

It looks like with the Syracuse men’s team welcoming the general public back into the Dome for the first time since last February, they’ve decided to bring the fancy uniforms out for the occasion.

Now I don’t know about you guys, but I absolutely LOVE the Syracuse lacrosse throwback uniforms. They’re my favorite Syracuse game threads that I’ve ever seen, in any sport.

It’s so clear to me that these should be SU’s regular unis — they’re that good IMO. Not to mention the fact that they’re infinitely better than the sleeveless ones the Orange have been trotting out for years now.

But I digress. I’m thrilled to get these for even one game. Let’s hope they bring us some good juju against North Carolina.

Speaking of which, let’s get to the actual most important things for Saturday:

Face-offs

Yay, more face-off talk!

Look, you guys know the deal. I know the deal. We all know. Syracuse HAS to be better at face-offs.

In the last two ACC games, the Orange went 17-of-64 from the X. That’s pathetic. That’s 27 percent. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: ‘Cuse doesn’t need to win 60 percent of their face-offs. They don’t even need to win 50 percent, to be honest. But they CANNOT continue to be THIS far away from 50 percent.

Statistically, the Tar Heels are good but not great at the X this season. They have two players that split face-off duties for them, Zac Tucci (57 percent) and Andrew Tyeryar (55 percent).

But, like the Orange, the Tar Heels have struggled in their last two ACC games, winning only 22-of-63 for 35 percent.

Two teams currently struggling on re-starts should make for a very interesting battle in this one, with the stakes being whose talented offense gets to see the ball more.

North Carolina Offense

There’s no sugar-coating this one: the Carolina offense is elite.

As in, the highest scoring offense in the country (17.4 goals per game). That kind of elite.

They’re led by one of the best players in college lacrosse, Chris Gray, whose 60 points (6 per game) leads D1 this season. He’s the complete package when it comes to his offensive arsenal, making his one of the frontrunners for this year’s Tewaaraton Award.

But UNC’s offense is much more than Gray. They hit you from all angles with supreme talent across the board. Former Orange player Nate Solomon’s (‘16-’19) younger brother Nicky is Carolina’s second-leading scorer, with Jacob Kelly rounding out their attack unit.

The midfield is so good that it rivals SU’s for most talented in the country. Made up of three seniors in William Perry, Tanner Cook, and Justin Anderson, it’s a group overflowing with experience, leadership, and scoring ability. They will be a true test for a SU defensive midfield that has had their issues this season. For my money, Cook would be the guy to have Brett Kennedy on the most, but the short-sticks are going to really have to bring their games to hold down this midfield group and their collective 5.5 goals per game.

UNC’s starting six on offense can measure up to anybody’s in the country, so the SU defense coming off a good effort against Albany is taking a giant step back up in class against Carolina and will need to adjust their intensity accordingly.

This is why they need to win as many face-offs as possible. You just can’t let this UNC offense possess the ball for too long or you’re in trouble.

Stephen Rehfuss vs. Will Bowen

Stephen Rehfuss is having the best season of his already impressive career. Recently named a third-team All-American on Inside Lacrosse’s “Midseason All-Americans” list, he’s reminding us all how good of a player he really is, no matter how much and how often he flies under the radar. He’s also become more of a scoring threat than he’s ever been, shooting an amazing 50 percent (20-of-40) on the season.

Will Bowen is having himself quite a season, as well. He’s one of the premier lockdown defenders in the country. He’s caused 21 turnovers in 10 games this season (2.1 per game), good for 9th best in the country. Although, to be fair, exactly 0 of those 21 have come in North Carolina’s ACC games. Regardless, Bowen was recently named a first-team All-American by that same IL list. He’s one of the best close defenders in the country.

This could well be the matchup that dictates exactly how Syracuse’s offense runs in this game. Rehfuss is one of the main engineers of this SU offense. He’s the leading point scorer and leading assister. He’s scored at least three points in every game this season.

But UNC will probably feel pretty good about stacking Bowen up one-on-one with Rehfuss and letting that play out, which means there’s a chance the Orange may need to find other means of generating offense if Rehfuss can’t win the matchup.

But the question is, who will step up when needed? Chase Scanlan has upped his shooting and scoring from earlier this season, but is usually more of a finisher than a creator. Owen Hiltz has cooled off from the torrid start to his career, putting up only six points in the last three games combined.

And the midfield has been struggling to replicate their historically good production from 2020. Brendan Curry and Tucker Dordevic have been somewhat inconsistent, and Jamie Trimboli hasn’t found it all season. He’s actually being outscored by Owen Seebold at this point (12 vs. 11 points).

Look, hopefully Rehfuss will make some plays against Bowen, but if not, ‘Cuse really needs the midfield to transform back into the one that was hyped as the best in the country this offseason. We know they’ve had plenty of success taking their short-stick matchups behind the cage on the invert, so I imagine we’ll see whoever has the shorties doing that on Saturday. It would also be great to get Hiltz back in the scoring mood. He’s so dangerous but has only three goals in the last four games after scoring 12 in the first four. He definitely possesses the ability to break down a defense with his incredible passing abilities, so hopefully we’ll see plenty of that too.

Ground Balls and Clearing

So, we know Syracuse needs to maximize possession in this game, and we’re hopeful for an improvement at the X from the last two ACC games.

But there are other ways to create and/or maintain possessions in lacrosse, and picking up ground balls and not turning the ball over are the first two the spring to mind.

In the ground ball game, UNC is +55 on the season, while SU is -15. Obviously, these are not the kind of numbers we want to see on Saturday. Yes, GBs are connected to face-offs, and SU has hurt itself there, but a team can still overcome that deficiency by fighting hard on the 50/50 balls. Those are going to be huge in this one, so ‘Cuse needs to bring their scrum-mentality against the Heels.

Both of these teams are tenacious in the ride game. UNC’s opponents are clearing at only 85.6 percent this year, while the Orange are even better at 82.8. Whichever team can better employ their 10-man ride to help cause turnovers will be doing themselves a huge favor in picking up extra possessions.

With this much offensive talent on the field, possession will be golden for these two teams. Face-offs, ground balls, turnovers, and the ride game will be the deciders of the final possession numbers, which might just dictate victory in this game.

Simply put: who wants the ball more? Let’s hope it’s Head, Heart, Hustle.