Duke and North Carolina have never played each other in the Final Four, but a national championship game between the two schools isn’t out of the question – and you don’t even have to wait until basketball season.
The Blue Devils and Tar Heels enter the NCAA men’s lacrosse tournament this weekend among the national favorites. Duke has won the national championship the past two seasons, and UNC, which hasn’t won a national title since 1991, has its best, deepest team in years.
It wouldn’t be too much of a surprise, either, to see an All-ACC Final Four. Five of the 18-team tournament’s top eight national seeds – Notre Dame (1), Syracuse (2), UNC (3), Duke (5) and Virginia (7) – are from the ACC.
Duke hosts Ohio State on Saturday night in a first-round game; UNC hosts Colgate on Sunday afternoon. If the Blue Devils and Tar Heels win three games, they’d play each other for the national championship.
Don’t know much about lacrosse? Didn’t even know the NCAA tournament started this weekend? Not to worry.
We checked in with Patrick Stevens, a Maryland-based sports journalist and longtime lacrosse (and college basketball) scribe, for a Triangle-related primer entering the NCAA tournament. Stevens – be sure to follow him on Twitter @D1course – is preparing to cover his 16th NCAA lacrosse tournament and will be covering the Final Four for the 13th time.
The News & Observer: Duke is the two-time defending champ. How does this group compare with the previous two?
Patrick Stevens: It’s not nearly as experienced, but that was to be expected given the Blue Devils’ loaded senior class a year ago. There are some familiar faces – attackman Case Matheis and midfielders Deemer Class and Myles Jones all started last year – but this is a significantly different Duke team.
Last year, Duke had arguably the best player in the country (attackman Jordan Wolf), a dominant and tested faceoff man (Brendan Fowler) and a veteran defense that happened to turn in its best weekend of the year to close out the season. The Blue Devils’ offense is a little more midfield-dependent this year, though Matheis has come on of late and Jack Bruckner and Justin Guterding enjoyed fine seasons on attack.
The defense, though, is more hit-and-miss. That’s to be expected when two sophomores and a freshman start on close defense and a redshirt freshman (Danny Fowler, who took over as the starter in the middle of the year) gets the nod at goalie.
N&O: What is the key for Duke’s bid to win a third consecutive title, something that hasn’t been done since Princeton (96-98)?
Stevens: It’s pretty simple – can the Blue Devils stop anybody good? In Duke’s six regular-season contests against the tournament’s top four seeds, it gave up 14.8 goals per game. If Duke is going to win it all, it will have to go through somebody in that Notre Dame/Syracuse/North Carolina/Denver mix, and quite possibly three of them.
Duke’s 13-8 defeat of Notre Dame in the ACC semifinals looks like a defensive outlier, but the timing of it has to elicit some optimism for the Blue Devils. Their offense is potent enough that they don’t have to rely on winning games by 10-9 and 9-8 margins. But trying to win a bunch of 16-15 and 15-14 games is not an easy way to go through the tournament.
N&O: Who is the best player in the Triangle?
Stevens: We could be here all day sorting out that question. To me, there are four candidates – three that anyone looking at a stat sheet could figure out, and then a fourth who is quietly one of the country’s most valuable players.
For North Carolina, senior attackmen Jimmy Bitter (34 goals, 35 assists) and Joey Sankey (27 goals, 36 assists) are exceptional offensive options who are made more dangerous by playing alongside each other. Sankey is North Carolina’s career leader in points (goals plus assists) with 220. Bitter has 123 career goals, five off the school record.
Up at Duke, midfielder Myles Jones (39 goals, 36 assists) is every bit as good as advertised this season. At 6-foot-4 and 235 pounds, he can overpower many of the guys marking him. But his ability to draw a slide and effectively find someone with more room to shoot is crucial for the Blue Devils.
This conversation should also include Duke defensive midfielder Will Haus, whose versatile game – defending opposing midfielders, playing on faceoff wings, functioning as a one-man clear – helps solve a lot of problems. The numbers don’t stand out, but many of the stars of Duke’s back-to-back championship teams described Haus as their MVP the last few years. That hasn’t changed.
N&O: Can you see an all-ACC final four?
Stevens: It’s very possible. Notre Dame and Syracuse have to be considered good bets to make it to Philadelphia, although both could face tricky quarterfinal contests (Notre Dame against a dangerous Albany, and Syracuse against rapidly improving Johns Hopkins in Annapolis). The Triangle teams have greater questions. Can North Carolina finally end its Memorial Day weekend drought? Can Duke go to Denver and win a de facto road game?
No one’s looked bad picking against North Carolina in May for the last 20 years, and no one’s looked good banking against Duke in May for the last decade. But given the situations those teams find themselves in, there might be a little role reversal for the two rivals.
N&O: UNC is seeded third, opposite of Notre Dame and Duke. The Heels haven’t won a title since going undefeated in 1991. Do the Heels have a chance?
Stevens: Indeed. The Tar Heels, along with Notre Dame, Syracuse, Denver and Duke, are the five teams that seem like viable candidates to win it all.
The problem with North Carolina is it’s just so hard to trust a program with its history. The Tar Heels have plenty of advantages relative to much of Division I but haven’t reached the semifinals since 1993. They’ve lost their last 10 NCAA tournament games outside of Chapel Hill. They’ve dropped their last seven quarterfinal appearances, including an excruciating loss to Denver two years ago in Indianapolis.
To coach Joe Breschi’s immense credit, he doesn’t hide from those trends. And in fairness to the current Tar Heels, they’re not responsible for much of that drought. They’re also an incredibly veteran team; none of their true freshmen has appeared in more than four games this season.
North Carolina has demonstrated it can compete with anybody. It led Notre Dame by two in the closing minutes before the Irish exploited a two-minute penalty and rallied; it split two games with Syracuse, the loss coming by a goal in the final two minutes; and it beat both Denver and Duke. Its three losses have come by a combined four goals. The Tar Heels are plenty capable of winning four in a row, but with their history, a quarterfinal game might be the most difficult one to collect.
N&O: UNC defeated Duke in the regular season, but Duke has been the superior program nationally for a while. How much have the Tar Heels closed the gap?
Stevens: There’s some evidence on the field that has happened. Between 2005 and the teams’ 2013 regular-season encounter, Duke won 16 of 17 meetings. North Carolina’s taken two of the last three. A lot of the gap-closing has already occurred.
This is about as senior- and star-laden a North Carolina team as there has been in recent memory. Duke probably relies less on its senior class than at any point in coach John Danowski’s tenure. In real time, these Tar Heels are probably the slightly better team. There’s a good chance the teams will flip spots again next year, but both programs warrant a healthy long-term prognosis.
Format: 18 teams, including two play-in winners.
When: Starts Saturday at campus sites.
Saturday: No. 5 Duke vs. Ohio State, 7:30 p.m.
Sunday: No. 3 UNC vs. Colgate, 5:15 p.m.
Final Four: May 23, 25 in Philadelphia.