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Syracuse Men's Lacrosse: Previewing UNC

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The Tar Heels make a visit to the Carrier Dome on Saturday to faceoff with the Syracuse Orange. It will be the 21st matchup between these two teams in a series that has really heated up since SU joined the ACC.

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

UNC Quick Facts

UNC All-Time Record Vs. SU: 7-13-0

UNC Streak Vs. SU: L1 (ACC Semifinals)

UNC Last Win Vs. SU: April 11, 2015

UNC 2015 Record: 13-4; Lost in the NCAA Quarterfinals to Maryland

UNC 2016 Record: 7-4; Wins versus Michigan, Furman, Johns Hopkins, Manhattan, Richmond, Duke, Virginia; Losses versus Hofstra, Denver, UMass, Maryland

2016 ACC Preseason Coaches' Poll: Tied at #3 out of five

2016 ACC Preseason All-Conference Players: A Luke Goldstock, A Matt Kavanagh, SSDM Tate Jozokos, D Austin Pifani

2016 RPI: #17

2016 SOS: #24

There are two ways to look at this season. On the one hand, the Syracuse Orange are three overtime losses away from being 9-1. On the other hand, Syracuse had a disastrous loss to Notre Dame, fell to a subpar Cornell team, and fell in overtime after giving up two fourth quarter leads.

The road will not get easier this Saturday when SU hosts the North Carolina Tar Heels. This is a very dangerous matchup in my mind. You have a fast-paced UNC team with a deep midfield core, very dangerous attack line, solid goalie, and faceoff guy as good as Ben Williams. Through the first nine goals against Virginia, UNC had nine different goal scorers, that's the kind of depth that the Tar Heels have and I can't imagine what the defensive game plan will be against such a talented group of scorers. Carolina was flying somewhat under the radar prior to the Virginia game due to losses against Hofstra and UMass. The Tar Heels are peaking at the right time (for once) and are a Championship Weekend caliber team.

In terms of the ACC picture, Syracuse is still the maker of its own destiny. An SU win on Saturday means the Orange will make the ACC Tournament. If the Orange fall to Carolina, it will take a Duke win against Virginia or a loss with the Blue Devils scoring at least 15 goals for SU to make the Conference tourney. The most logical outcome is Syracuse losing to UNC and Duke beating UVA, which would leave Syracuse as the #4 seed. While normally making the conference tournament would be a good thing, this year the last place ACC team will face the Brown Bears and a win over Brown would go farther than a win over Duke, UNC, or Virginia.

The magic number for Saturday is 13. When UNC has scored less than 13 they are 0-4, but when scoring more than 13, the Heels are 7-0. Considering the state of Syracuse's defensive unit and goalie situation, and the fact that SU is averaging 12.6 goals per game, I think the Orange will be significantly outscored on Saturday.

UNC has the ability to get going quickly on offense, so the Orange will need to come out of the gate ready to go. The Tar Heels are an exciting offensive team that plays well in an up-tempo game; Syracuse does not want to get into a shooting match with this team. SU will need to be careful with each offensive possession. If UNC gets going it could be a very slippery slope given that UNC has a faceoff guy that can beat Williams.

On Tuesday, Syracuse went up against the best man-down defense in the county and went 0-4 on extra-man opportunities. Against UNC the ‘Cuse will be facing the second best man-down unit in the country, and will need to come away with something more.

The groundball game will certainly be a challenge for Syracuse. The Heels have fifty more groundballs this season than Syracuse and are tenth in the nation in groundballs per game. The turf battle will be a physical matchup and could end up deciding the game. Against Virginia, the best groundball team in the country, UNC snagged 31 of 48 GBs.

Attack

The attack likes to play the two-man game from below cage. Watch the picks and dodges from below goal line extended. One thing that scares me is UNC's ability in unsettled situations. If offensive sets break down, the Syracuse defense, which has looked horrific in unsettled situations, could be in serious trouble. Luke Goldstock put up a monster 50 goals last season while playing on a stellar attack line that also featured Jimmy Bitter and Joey Sankey. The graduating duo had 79 assists last season, and without them Goldstock has stepped into more of a distributor role, leading this year's team with 16 assists. Goldstock may be the most talented attackman for UNC, and can turn garbage groundballs into fast tallies.

Steve Pontrello has been a three-year starter on the first line midfield, but has been playing attack in 2016. The senior is a physical dodger and doesn't mind getting hit while taking a shot. Pontrello is the leading goal and point scorer for the Tar Heels with 32 and 41 respectively. Notably, Pontrello is the younger brother of Nikko Pontrello who helped Loyola to the 2012 National Championship

Ontario native Chris Cloutier plays with that box style, physical around the cage and unafraid to back down defenders on the crease. For that reason, I would be a bit timid to put Nick Mellen on him as Mellen may not have the size to battle Cloutier. The sophomore played on the scout team last season, but has really stepped up in the starting role this year. He is incredibly accurate, sporting the tenth best shooting percentage in the nation and a .729 shots on goal percentage. Cloutier has 23 goals and 10 assists on the year.

Midfield

Former attackman Patrick Kelly has 20 goals and five assists on the year. The senior is deadly on the wing with his left-handed grip and has a nice outside shot. Shane Simpson is the fastest guy on the Carolina roster. His speed gives him tremendous ability as a dodger and he could burn the SU defensive midfield this weekend. The junior from Ontario has six goals and nine assists in 2016.

Michael Tagliaferri has spent most of his career as a short stick defensive midfielder, but this season has adapted his offensive game nicely tying a career high in points in a season with 20. He is a great athlete and is another guy who will be a physical matchup problem for the SU defensive middies.

Syracuse will have to respect this second line midfield on Saturday. The most dangerous player on that second line is Timmy Kelly with 12 points. Brian Cannon is another former attackman who has made the switch to the midfield corps while the third midfielder, William McBride, is also one of the primary wing players. All three are scoring threats and the trio has combined for 22 points on the season.

Faceoff

Stephen Kelly is 157-250 at the faceoff X for a .628 winning percentage. Last week against Virginia, Kelly went 17-25. Unlike Ben Williams, who also has a .628 winning percentage, Kelly can provide instant offense off the faceoff. This should be a very good battle at the X, but remember, Williams is coming off of a fantastic game against Cornell where he went 18-22 against one of the best in the nation in Domenic Massimilian.

Defense

The defense is successfully clearing the ball .839 percent of the time, leaving them 50th in the country for clearing percentage. SU has been pretty good on the ride this year, so this could be an advantage for Syracuse. The long-poles pack the middle and do a great job of preventing inside passes. UVA had a lot of problems getting the ball inside against UNC, so this could be a situation where SU's long distance shooters will have to perform in order to give the Orange a chance. Austin Pifani is the premier close defender for the Heels. He is also the guy that stepped on Hakeem Lecky back in 2015. The UNC defense uses a rotation at close-defense. That rotation will include Ryan Macri, Jack Rowlett and Zach Powers.

Goal

Kieran Burke started 42 games in his three years at UNC, but prior to this season Head Coach Joe Breschi confirmed that Burke would be taking a leave of absence from lacrosse. Burke started in his freshman and sophomore year as well as for the second half of 2015. In his place Brian Balkam took over full-time starting duties. Balkam started the first seven games of last year before being supplanted by Burke.

Last weekend against UVA, Balkam grabbed 14 saves and looked unreal. It is scary to think what will happen if he has a similar game against SU on Saturday. The Carolina defense doesn't give up a lot of shots and Balkam has only had to make an average of 7.64 saves per game. While he is a good goalie, he is not great. In the loss against UMass, Balkam was pulled prior to the fourth quarter after giving up 11 goals and making just five saves. He has great body movement in net and can get down on the ball very quickly, basically the opposite of Warren Hill. Speaking of Hill, I would expect Evan Molloy to get the start.

Syracuse will host the North Carolina Tar Heels on Saturday at 4 PM. The game will be broadcasted on ESPN3 and can be heard on TK99. Of course you can always follow me @Orangelax for updates.