Editor's Note: Quint Kessenich covers lacrosse for the ESPN networks and can be followed on twitter at @QKessenich
The inaugural Big East tournament offers a ticket to the NCAA tournament for the winner. Notre Dame is the top seed and owns a resume worthy of at-large selection if they were to stumble. Syracuse needs to win the AQ after a rough regular season. Villanova hopes to go dancing again this spring after an NCAA appearance in 2011, and St John's is the party crasher.
Let’s take a closer look at the contenders:
St Johns (7-6)
The Red Storm gained entry into the Big East tournament with a win over Rutgers and a dramatic come-from-behind victory over Georgetown (13-12 OT). They are one of the most improved teams in the nation. Notre Dame beat St Johns 13-6 on April 1.
Offense is their strongest attribute. "When their top six guys are on the field, five were attackman at some point in their college careers," says ESPN announcer Paul Caracterra. "They are crafty ball handlers and players who complement each other. They have a feeder and quarterback in sophomore Kieran McArdle (46 pts), a scorer in sophomore Kevin Cernuto, and middies Harry Kutner and Ryan Fitzgerald stretch a defense."
After a 4-10 season a year ago, the Red Storm and coach Jason Miller took the next step to greatness. "They played a significant amount of freshmen a year ago," says Carcaterra. "They are still young but experienced now. Cernuto and McCardle led the team in points as freshmen and now they are two of the best offensive players in the BIG EAST. "
St. John's gets strong goalie play from Jeff Lowman (.550 save percentage), who is the clear second best goalie in the conference behind ND's John Kemp (.655).
Notre Dame is the clear favorite in the BIG EAST semifinal. How can St John's pull off the upset? "Push the ball in transition when the opportunity arises," says Carcaterra. "ND is so difficult to beat in half-field sets. In the first meeting, St. John's capitalized a few times in transition."
Notre Dame (11-1)
Coach Kevin Corrigan has built the Fighting Irish into a national powerhouse; his team has qualified for six-straight NCAA tournaments with two Championship Weekend appearances. They currently are the No. 1 rated team in the RPI.
The Irish’s lone loss this year was to Penn State on February 26. They've won 10 straight games and haven't surrendered more than 10 goals in any contest this spring. They have the nations best defense, only allowing 5.8 goals against per game.
"The biggest thing that stands out to me about the Notre Dame defense is that, as a unit, they are relentless on every possession," says ESPN announcer Joe Beninati. "I haven't seen anyone take a shift off. They are almost always in the right places, they rarely over-extend themselves, and they have a really good stopper in John Kemp who cleans up when they slip-up."
The offense grinds for high-quality shots and doesn't rely on one superstar. Instead they lean on contributions from many. "Jim Marlatt has more points and may be tougher to cover off the dodge, but I would say that Ryan Foley is playing the best right now when the Fighting Irish have the ball," says Beninati, the former goalie at Bowdoin. "There was a time earlier in the year when Notre Dame looked indecisive on offense. Foley has brought a very aggressive mindset to the field in the last six weeks and the results speak for themselves."
But who will make critical plays at crunchtime? "The only other thing I don't see is a true distributor among the attackmen," says Beninati. "They get solid production from Sean Rogers, Westy Hopkins, and Conor Doyle, but none of those three qualify as the type of ‘dodge and dish’ guy that will come in handy at tournament time."
Syracuse will try to straighten out some glaring issues. "The Orange are 23rd in DI in scoring, producing 10.31 goals per game — and that’s bumped by a 19-goal performance against Rutgers," says Terry Foy of Insidelacrosse. "SU has been limited to eight or fewer goals in four games this season — and lost them all. In Derek Maltz and Tim Desko, the offense has crafty goal-scorers, but Tommy Palasek and JoJo Marasco, while good in spurts, haven’t been able to consistently scare defenses."
The defense, once thought to be a team strength, is now flip-flopping between zone and man-to-man schemes. "In net, Matt Lerman, Dom Lamolinara and Bobby Wardwell have each played at least 25 percent of the minutes this season, but none has a save percentage above 50 percent," says Foy.
But make no mistake, the Orange roster has All-American talent. "The play of Brian Megill has been eye-opening," says Foy. "After making the shift to lead cover defender with the graduation of John Lade, Megill’s athleticism has been on display. In recent weeks, as he’s taken face-offs, Megill has shown that he’ll do what his team requires to win, the most important quality a teammate can possess."
How can they turn it around this week? Syracuse must beat Villanova, or their season is over. "In the Wildcats’ 11-10 win in the Carrier Dome in late March, the teams were nearly even in every statistical category — the game was decided by VU’s three-goal run to end the third and start the fourth quarter, which is the most common time in a game for a team to lose focus and for fatigue to set in," says Foy.
Foy sums up the challenge ahead. "The roads to victory for Syracuse are numerous — show the program’s traditional swagger and utilize an offensive explosion to blow the Wildcats out, ratchet up the ‘D’ like in years past and strangle Villanova’s offense, or channel the veteran leadership and win a close game with its season on the line," he says.
The Wildcats will host the inaugural tournament and limp into the postseason having lost to Notre Dame and Providence to end the year. Villanova's offense is rated 18th in the country, but its defense has struggled, rated 40th. Villanova will draw on last year’s trip to the NCAA tournament for experience.
Villanova runs a unique motion offense with picks and screens set on the perimeter to create havoc for the defense. Its offensive leader, Kevin Cunningham (20g,21a) is a known commodity and Major League Lacrosse draft pick. Will Castertano has terrific vision (16g,20a) and righty shooter Jack Rice is a pure slot player who roams around the inside and finishes at a 40 percent clip.
VU does well facing off (54 percent) and this is a facet the Wildcats must exploit to beat Syracuse. Their extra-man unit is exceptional (52 percent) under the direction of coach Mike Corrado. But their defense will have to tighten up and they must get saves from Dan Gutierrez (.479 save percentage) if they want to advance to the BIG EAST finals.
The Wildcats own three one-goal wins, including an 11-10 victory in the Carrier Dome over Syracuse on March 25. On their best days, they've shown they can beat anybody, including Lehigh, but their loss to Providence last week is a head-scratcher.
With all the chips on the table, this semifinal should be outstanding theatre.