NCAA Championship Breakdown

This is outside the typical range of content featured on these pages, but Tempo Free Lax has to be put to good use somehow, right? A quick look at both teams in this afternoon’s NCAA Final:

That would be Loyola, whom I’ve been rooting for to pass UMass in the overall rating (it looks like it’s not going to happen, no matter how many excellent teams the Hounds beat in the tournament, such is life.

And that would be the unseeded finalist – for the second year in a row – Maryland.

Notes

This should not be a particularly fast game. Maryland is famed for their deliberate, slow pace offensively, and a solid defense that has helped them win a game 9-6 this year (and also lose a 5-6 decision, among other low-scoring losses). On the other side of the ball, Loyola is closer to the middle of the pack as the No. 22 fastest team. For a team that scores as much as they do, though, they certainly don’t run up tons of possessions.

Despite an often-sluggish pace of play, you don’t need to necessarily expect a low-scoring game in this one, however. Maryland only scored in the single-digits four times this year out of 17 games. Loyola has had the same number of single-digit games, with 18 chances. That’s because both offenses are efficient, with Loyola’s No. 10 in the country, and Maryland’s oft-criticized unit No. 3 nationally (of course, it’s criticized for being Stall City, not for being inefficient).

HOWEVA, both teams also sport excellent defenses – No. 7 nationally for Maryland and No. 5 for Loyola – so the offenses are going to be pretty deliberate in their execution. Both are teams that shoot accurately and value their shots (only one stalls on damn near every possession to do it, of course), and against a pair of good defenses, that will mean cycling it around a lot before finding the defense out of shape.

Both of these teams are right near the middle of the pack in faceoff win percentage. Loyola is slightly better at No. 24 – despite being victims of a near-perfect performance for Notre Dame’s Liam O’Connor on Saturday – whereas Maryland comes in No. 30. With their sample sizes, it’s likely that strength of opposition and simple statistical noise account for most of the difference.

One thing that will likely slow down the game? The clear-ride transition. Both teams are excellent clearing the ball – Maryland is No. 9 and Loyola is the best team in the country – and not nearly as proficient at riding the opposition into turnovers. Maryland’s ride is ranked No. 39 in the country, and Loyola’s is still pretty high at No. 20, but against good clearing teams, they probably aren’t going to push their luck in that department. Don’t expect lots of fireworks at midfield leading to transition opportunities.

The Big Deal

This should be a very even game. According to the respective expected win percentages, Loyola has a 54.74% chance of taking home the victory. That’s damn near a toss-up, with the nation’s second-best team (despite bowing out in the tournament’s first round, UMass probably won’t be unseated from the top of the heap) having only a slight edge on No. 7.

The possession game probably won’t be a huge factor. Both squads are good-not-great on faceoffs, excellent on the clear, and mediocre on the ride. That means up-and-down action should be limited, but equal in terms of opportunities.

The difference, then, will be the team that can better take advantage of the opportunities that they do have. Loyola’s No. 10 offense against Maryland’s No. 7 defense is slightly less of a heavyweight battle than Maryland’s No. 3 offense against Loyola’s No. 5 defense. Whichever D can come out slightly better will earn the championship.

In that matchup, even though the Loyola offense isn’t quite as prolific (and we’re talkin’ less than two goals per 100 possessions difference here), I like the one that brings star power. Mike Sawyer and Eric Lusby and Davis Butts… the list of impressive offensive performers for Loyola is pretty impressive, and while Maryland isn’t exactly trotting out scrubs this afternoon, nobody stands out like those three do for the Hounds.

On D, where Loyola is slightly better, they also have more takeaway specialists (this isn’t something we tracked on Tempo Free Lax this past season, but going forward we should probably look at caused turnovers per defensive possession), led by Scott Ratliff. Loyola also has the better goaltender, with Jack Runkel saving a greater percentage of shots faced than oft-fawned-over Terp Niko Amato. While that doesn’t necessarily speak to a better defense, Loyola stockpiling all the offensive and defensive stars certainly says something. Of course, Maryland has had less star power in pretty much every game of the tournament so far, and that hasn’t bothered them a lick.

There are intangible factors at play for each side – you never know how motivational factors like breaking an ignominious streak, or bringing home the school’s first NCAA Championship will play out –

Overall, Maryland gets a bad rap for playing slow, and while that is the case, they still manage to score a lot – No. 15 nationally on a non-tempo-free basis. In this game, both teams will probably play it close, and I just see Loyola having the better players. At the end of the day, that makes a difference. Loyola takes home the 9-7 victory and the school’s first national championship.

Over/under for Quint Kessenich bitching about college lacrosse needing a shot clock: 8.5. (This is a post for another day, but I’m of the opinion that a shot clock would do much more harm than good).

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