While the academic year has come to a close, the collegiate lacrosse season is just entering its main event. Duke has certainly established itself as one of the premier programs in the country, and this year’s Blue Devils open up the NCAA tournament on the road at No. 7 Loyola Saturday at noon (ESPNU). Duke previously bested the Greyhounds on the road, 15-6, on March 12.
The Blue Devils are unseeded in the tournament for the first time since 2001, but count them out at your own risk (they also have beaten four of the eight seeded teams). In case you haven’t been following along closely, here’s a Q&A to get you up to speed:
1. On April 10, Duke was 7-6 on the year and 1-2 in ACC play. Was there any real thought that the Blue Devils would miss the NCAA tournament?
It was in play, but not all that likely. The Blue Devils had games against Virginia (which it has owned for more than a decade) and Boston University still to come, so their chances of finishing under .500 weren’t that significant. The one thing that seemed a bit ominous was that Duke’s most noteworthy victories –over Syracuse and Loyola – came against teams that didn’t have great profiles at the time themselves.
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Of course, both of those teams surged into the top 10 of the RPI by winning their respective leagues, and Duke bagged victories over Notre Dame and Marquette that held up well down the stretch. In the end, it was a mild surprise Duke didn’t wind up with a home game in the first round.
2. Which area(s) of Duke’s team have improved the most over the course of the season?
Take out the post-lightning delay portion of the ACC title game against Syracuse, and Duke’s defense has largely played well – and definitely better – over the final five weeks. The Blue Devils have matched up well at that end of the field against a capable Notre Dame bunch on two occasions, held Marquette to one goal (not easy to do to anyone, let alone a team that went on to secure the No. 6 seed in the NCAA tournament) and yielded 10 goals or more just once in their last six games.
As a comparison, seven of Duke’s first 12 opponents got to double figures. The Blue Devils are still best known for their capabilities at the offensive end, but their defense appears more capable of stopping decent offenses now than it did last year and especially a month and a half ago.
3. Where are the areas of concern that remain?
Depth is the big one, particularly at the offensive end. Duke leans more heavily on its six offensive starters than just about any other credible national title threat. Some of this makes sense; Deemer Class and Myles Jones are two of the best five midfielders in the country, and they’re considerably better than what Duke has on its second line. Nonetheless, freshman Brad Smith (nine goals) and faceoff man Kyle Rowe (three goals) are the only non-starters with more than two goals this season.
Put another way: Duke’s second midfield line exists primarily to give Class, Jones and Chad Cohan a breather and not to actually generate much scoring on its own, and sometimes those respites are rare for the Blue Devils’ regulars. That could prove costly as the weather gets warmer (if the weather ever gets warmer).
4. Until last year, Duke was 8-for-8 in Final Four appearances under coach John Danowski. After last year’s surprising first-round exit to Ohio State and this year’s up-and-down season, is there any chance some of the mystique surrounding the program is gone?
There’s certainly less of a sense of inevitability from the outside after that stumble. In retrospect, it was easy to see how Duke could get tripped up early in last year’s postseason (its defense left much to be desired), but the Blue Devils always pieced things together in May so it was almost a reflex to dismiss those concerns.
Alternatively, there was never any escaping the fact the streak existed and no one wanted to be part of the team that saw it end. Even if those in the program insisted it was something that wasn’t talked about – and for much of the year, it probably wasn’t – there’s no escaping the knowledge that a chance to play on the final weekend of the season was at stake every time Duke made it to the quarterfinals. It’s up to this bunch to start a new streak, and perhaps that possibility will work in the Blue Devils’ favor.
5. Myles Jones, the ACC offensive player of the year, was also the No. 1 pick in the Major League Lacrosse draft back in January. How can upcoming NCAA opponent(s) hope to limit him, and how would Duke counter such moves?
As stellar an athlete as Jones is, he can still get worn out – and that’s exactly what happened in the regular season loss to Notre Dame. Not everyone can defend as ably as the Fighting Irish, so finding alternative ways of keeping Jones on the field would certainly help.
In that sense, Loyola isn’t an ideal draw for Duke even though the Blue Devils already drilled the Greyhounds in Baltimore earlier this season. Loyola has one of the most aggressive rope units (defensive midfields) in the country, and the Greyhounds have sought more transition since dropping three games in March. That always has the potential of forcing an opponent’s offensive midfielders to stay on the field at the defensive end, which would not be good for a team with Duke’s depth issues.
6. What needs to happen for the Blue Devils to make it nine Final Fours in 10 years under Danowski?
Win faceoffs and take care of the ball once they do. Kyle Rowe’s enjoyed a fine season at the X, but he’ll get a tough test against Loyola’s Graham Savio (the Patriot League tournament’s MVP). A juicy game-within-a-game between Rowe and Denver star Trevor Baptiste is a possibility in the quarterfinals.
The Blue Devils have always stressed fundamentals under Danowski, so their penchant for turnovers –14.8 per game, 52nd nationally out of 68 qualifying teams – is jarring. As a comparison, Duke ranked 12th (2010), 27th (2013) and 24th (2014) in turnovers in its three national title years. Teams willing to push the pace like the Blue Devils will commit a few more miscues, but nearly everyone left in the field is plenty capable of punishing a foe who wastes so many possessions.
NCAA lacrosse tournament
Duke at Loyola
When: noon Saturday
North Carolina at Marquette
When: 2:30 p.m. Saturday