The North Carolina Tar Heels and Syracuse Orange will face off in the semifinals of the ACC Championship tonight at 6 PM in Kennesaw, GA. As soon as the first semifinals game is over Notre Dame and Duke will take the field, and both games can be seen on ESPNU. On Saturday, the Virginia Cavaliers will play the Brown Bears in the ACC-Brown Classic at 7 PM. Finally, Sunday will feature the two semifinal winners in the ACC Championship game at noon. It should be a packed weekend so let's get ready.
UNC Quick Facts
UNC All-Time Record Vs. SU: 7-14-0
UNC Streak Vs. SU: L2
UNC Last Win Vs. SU: April 11, 2015
UNC 2015 Record: 13-4; Lost in the NCAA Quarterfinals to Maryland
UNC 2016 Record: 8-5; Wins versus Michigan, Furman, Johns Hopkins, Manhattan, Richmond, Duke, Virginia, Notre Dame; Losses versus Hofstra, Denver, UMass, Maryland, Syracuse
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: #12
2016 SOS: #12
For the second straight year, the Syracuse Orange will take on the Tar Heels in the first round of the ACCT.
2014 was the first year for SU lacrosse in the ACC. In those two years, Syracuse has made the ACC Championship game twice, winning it in 2015. Against UNC, SU is 14-7 all-time, 1-0 in the ACCT, and 3-1 against UNC since entering the ACC.
You may be wondering about how Friday's game will affect Syracuse's NCAA chances. The Orange are still on the bubble. It is possible that SU could still get into the NCAAT even with a loss to UNC. On the other hand, a win over UNC should cement SU's at-large bid. Conference tournaments will certainly affect Syracuse's chances. Watch out for the Big Ten Tournament and the Patriot League Championship for potential spoilers. Army winning the Patriot League or Rutgers or Penn State taking the Big Ten Crown could potentially push SU out of the NCAAT if the Orange don't win on Friday. Marquette lost 1-16 to Duke last week, helping Syracuse's post season chances. The Golden Eagles have an opportunity against Denver this weekend, but if they lose, as I expect them to, Marquette will probably have to win the Big East to get into the NCAAT.
Now, let's get back into the UNC-‘Cuse preview...
Any time you hold a team to five shots on goal or fewer per quarter, it's a good sign for your defense. Against UNC two weeks ago, the Orange only gave up 16 shots on net. SU held UNC's top four leading goal scorers to just two tallies, both off the crosse of Luke Goldstock. In order for the Heels to get a win they have to put up more shots on net. UNC has the sixth best scoring offense in college lacrosse, putting up an average of 13.31 goals per game. UNC has lost every game that it has scored fewer than 13 goals and won every game that it has scored more than 13 goals.
Carolina has a great attack line featuring Luke Goldstock, Steve Pontrello and Chris Cloutier. Against Syracuse, that trio was held to a combined seven shots and two goals. Pontrello is the leading goal and point scorer on the team. The senior is known for his outside rip, but he can get physical on the dodge. Cloutier has come out of nowhere to be the second leading goal scorer on the team. He can play the box style around the crease but has really developed his dodging ability since arriving at Chapel Hill.
In terms of the Syracuse close defensive unit, we are in a similar position this year as we were in 2015. In both years, SU has had great defensive games and then those games that we'd like to forget. At times the frustration level while watching the long-poles is off the chart. One interesting stat is that the Orange have had fewer than seven caused turnovers twice this season (Cornell 4, Notre Dame 2) and lost both those games.
The good news is that the Orange looked fantastic on the defensive end in its last two games. When UNC dodged from X against SU, I was really impressed with the Syracuse long-poles' ability to prevent the players from turning the corner and getting a shot off. Brandon Mullins and Nick Mellen had big games against UNC and the defense as a whole played nearly perfect. Mullins snagged three caused turnovers and four groundballs in what was probably his best performance over the last two years. With Carolina coming off of a huge momentum win against Notre Dame, the duo will need to put up a similar performance for SU to repeat.
One point of concern for me amongst the Syracuse midfield is the dropped balls and errant passes. Against UNC the Orange midfield had a lot of trouble hanging on to the ball at the top of the box. While it was somewhat of a non-issue because generally they were able to recover the loose ball, it's not a good trend.
Over the last three games, Nick Mariano has put away 11 goals. Coming into the season, no one really knew how Mariano fit into this SU offense after transferring from UMass. It's pretty remarkable that he has come onto a new team and switched positions from attack to midfield, and yet is the leading goal scorer on this team. Amongst players with over 50 shots, Mariano has the third best shooting percentage on the team, and the Orange are tied for 15th in the nation in that category.
With a first line midfield grouping of Mariano, Sergio Salcido, and Derek DeJoe, the Orange create a matchup problem for most teams. The biggest question for UNC will be whether to pole Mariano or Salcido? Mariano is a physical dodger and has a good outside shot. I think most people underestimate Salcido's outside shot, but his strength is his speed. He is the fastest guy on this Syracuse team and can burn shorties with the speed dodge. That leaves Derek DeJoe who has an absolute rocket from outside. The trio burned Carolina for 10 point two weeks ago with Mariano and Salcido combining for six goals. The UNC defensive midfield will have a lot on its plate.
Speaking of dangerous midfielders, Michael Tagliaferri hit up ‘Cuse for four goals in the regular season game. The California product had just 12 goals in his previous two seasons before putting away 22 this season. Shane Simpson is a speed guy and if he gets a step on his defender, then watch out. That being said, the Orange held him to just one shot in the earlier game. Patrick Kelly is the leading midfield goal scorer for the Heels.
Carolina basically didn't have a dodging element of its game against Syracuse. The midfielders were rebuffed in nearly every dodging attempt by Syracuse's quick feet, good communication, and well timed slides. I put together a rough diagram of all the shots made by Carolina against Syracuse, and every UNC goal was scored between approximately eight and 17 yards off the crease. Overall, there was zero passing penetration into the inside of the zone. The Carolina middies and attack have to do a better job with off-ball movement.
Ben Williams should be ok for the Carolina game. He took a big hit in the Binghamton game that sidelined him for the fourth quarter. Williams has been dominant in the last three games versus Cornell, UNC, and Binghamton going 46 of 61 for a .754 winning percentage over those three matches. SU went 2-1 over that stretch falling to the Cornell Big Red 9-10 in a game where he had a .818 winning percentage at the X. Williams has slipped a bit this year from his astounding 2015 season, but is still 6th in division I in faceoff winning percentage.
This week Williams was spurned by the ACC coaches for a spot on the All-ACC Team, a spot that instead went to UNC's Stephen Kelly. At the faceoff X, even as Ben Williams took 16 of 24 from Kelly two weeks ago, it was a real test. Without the wing play from Syracuse it was dead even. This will easily be the most interesting matchup on the field come Friday night.
Jack Rowlett should take on Dylan Donahue, but All-ACC defenseman Austin Pifani will be waiting with his trademark physical play if Rowlett isn't up to the challenge. The attack combination of Donahue, Tim Barber, and Jordan Evans took advantage of the transition game burying five goals, 10 points against UNC in the first matchup.
The Syracuse offense has outshot its opponents 485-341, but lags behind in both shooting percentage and shots on goal percentage. In games where the Orange have a sub .300 shooting percentage, SU has a 2-3 record. When Syracuse has a shots on goal percentage of .556 or less, the Orange are 1-3. When SU scores 10 or fewer goals they have a 1-3 record.
The man-up unit continues to be very strong converting on .533 percent of power plays, 3rd in the nation. To show how important man-up goals are, in games where SU has one or no EMO goals the Orange are 3-4 The Orange will be facing the fifth best man-down unit in the nation, however the Heels allowed two goals on two extra man opportunities versus SU.
The Tar Heels did not look great on the clear against a good riding SU. As the 47th rated clearing team in the country, UNC's clear starts with goaltender Brian Balkam hitting Austin Pifani on the near side alley as the defense clears the box. Pifinai is the point guy on the clears and will bring the ball up the alley towards midfield playing tight to the sideline looking for the short pass. The problem with this is that Pifani is vulnerable to a trap as he moves up the field and UNC coughed up four of 19 clears against Syracuse two weekends ago. Given how they run the clear, it seems like UNC does not have a lot of confidence in Balkam's ability to see the field and make the long pass.
The groundball battle was physical when these two teams first matched up and I would expect the same on Friday. Syracuse grabbed 29 of 49 GBs and used those opportunities to keep control of the ball. UNC is ninth in groundballs per game while Syracuse is 18th in the nation in the same stat. Win the groundball battle and you probably win this game.
I was really impressed by Brian Balkam in the loss to Syracuse and the win over Notre Dame. He doesn't have the greatest numbers, but he is playing with a ton of confidence in net right now.
On the other side of the field I'm so much more comfortable with Evan Molloy on the deep shots than I was with Warren Hill. Also, if you listen to the broadcasts you can hear Molloy yelling directions to his defense, there is no question that his communication has improved the defense. He can make saves that Hill just wasn't able to, both inside and outside. Unlike Balkam, Molloy has been a big piece of the clearing game. He is offensive minded on the clear and is very able to start a quick paced transition.
On Friday night at 6 PM the Syracuse Orange travel to Kennesaw, Georgia to take on the North Carolina Tar Heels in the first round of the ACC Tournament. The game can be seen on ESPNU and heard on TK99. Of course you can also follow me @OrangeLax for updates.