Detroit hit a major slump last year, falling to 2-10 after building to the program’s first-ever winning record the previous season. They are picked to finish sixth in the seven-team MAAC this year, not exactly a vote of confidence. It says here that the poll is a little pessimistic (as it has been for the Titans every year but one, as far as their finish in the conference), and 2016 goes down as more of a hiccup than a sign of impending doom.
The Titans shifted from a Canadian-based attack to running the offense through a player from a different pipeline when DC Gonzaga’s Mark Anstead took the reins over the past two years. In his junior season, he should be as effective offensively as ever (though not complemented by Adams like he was in Year One), and hopefully able to cut out some of the turnovers – which as long-time readers of this blog know is UDM’s consistent bugaboo up and down the roster – which should make him highly effective.
The other two starting attackmen return as well, so this should be quite a bit more polished. Given that the offense on McNichols has long depended on effective players at attack, that should make for a pretty good unit. Junior Alec Gilhooly and Kyle Beauregard were the Nos. 3 and 5 scorers on an offense that saw only the top five players reach double-digit points thanks to brutal inefficiency (just .212 on the year) and a pretty significant possession disadvantage. Both were more finishers with Anstead quarterbacking the attack.
What the Titans lose most here is depth, with no returning attackmen with playing experience back, aside from the starters. Some of the attack/mid combos (such as Adam Susalla) can certainly help fill that void, but finding a second attack line would be a pretty good idea, in my surely controversial opinion.
UDM loses the top-scoring offensive midfielder, Andy Hebden, who was also the best shooter on the team among those who scored more than one goal. The bright side of losing him? His team-high shooting percentage was only .279, worse than the overall average of more than half the country’s teams. As the best shooter. (Maybe shot selection was a bigger issue for the Titans than turnovers last year, though I will keep beating the turnover drum).
Anyway, those who do return include every-game starter Sean Birney, who scored seven goals and added seven assists last season, and Lucas Ducharme, who started eight of the 11 games in which he played and was the team’s sixth-leading scorer with five goals and two assists.
Patrick Walsh started last year as a primarily defensive midfielder, and only got into nine games, but showed a bit of offensive punch later in the year (his meager four points ended up seventh on the team), and at 6-3, 180 is a physical intimidator enough to be a bit of a two-way guy. I like his potential, and the history of UDM success with Canadian players (he’s an Ontario native who played at Hill Academy) could portend big things for his second year on campus.
The depth here is not proven, either, not least of which because it’s hard to call a whole lot from last year’s offense “proven.” However, look for JD Hess – who started his career as strictly a defensive midfielder but has rounded into a bigger offensive role – to make an impact, as well.
The faceoff dot has been a trouble area for UDM in the past several years, but thanks to the emergence of Ben Gjokaj as the full-time starter on draws last year, it started to creep back toward being pretty good. The Titans were still sub-.500, but Gjokaj his a .556 clip. Backups Greg Marzec (.269) and Mike Sforza (.327) can be more depth players – with Sforza hopefully making a big leap in his second year on-campus.
The wing play has always been a part of the issue for a Detroit team that doesn’t often feature specialists who grab their own GBs (Gjokaj got 31% of his last year, pretty high for the Titans), but that’s almost as much a product of not matching up physically with the most talented teams on the schedule (the power conference teams) when there’s not a Jordan Houtby-type talent available on the wing.
The Titans have a couple obvious starters here, led by Charlie Hayes. He was the top short stick in terms of ground balls among those whose contributions didn’t come from being offensive or faceoff specialists. The other clear options are both LSMs, though, with Pat Masterson and Austin Polson-McCannon both playing plenty and very well last year. Will one of them move to close D to get both on the field more frequently? It wouldn’t surprise – as much as it may feel like a waste of athleticism to have an LSM play close, it’s even more wasteful to have him play “sit on the bench because the other guy is on the field.”
The second short-stick defensive midfielder is either going to have to be a two-way guy (perhaps Hess, as mentioned above), or someone who has yet to prove himself on the college level. Connor Maks, who played a bit as a redshirt freshman but missed al of last year with an injury, is one potential option.
The Titans’ defense wasn’t too bad last year, allowing a .305 offensive efficiency to opponents despite plenty of turnover-fueled fast-break opportunities on which the offense/transition were as much to blame as the D. The problem is that the primary starters here have moved along.
Jordan Yono and Paul Bitetti were both multi-year starters, and though Bitetti will be on the staff as an undergraduate assistant, it would feel a whole lot better if he was able to actually suit up. Will Kane started every game alongside that duo as a sophomore last year, and will now have to be the lynchpin of the defense. Sophomore Sam Horton (who started one game in Bitetti’s stead last year) is a potential starter, as well. He appears to be physically ready at 6-1, 192. Tracis Sparling is listed as a redshirt freshman, but that’s a mistake (he’s a redshirt sophomore), and although he didn’t do much statistically last Spring, he saw action in 11 games, at least. It’s possible that one of the aforementioned LSMs joins the unit, or that there’s a position-switch starter here. Either way, the unit around him is going to have question marks.
Fortunately for a close defense that will take a little while to come together, they have perhaps the best goalie in the country backing them up. I’ve made it no secret my opinion of Weber’s talent, and although his save percentage is good-not-spectacular (.541), he’s doing it behind the defense described above, not wave after wave of IL top-100 recruits like most of the other keepers near the top of the national rankings in the stat.
Weber should be able to steal some games as long as the defense in front of him manages to jell at some point. It’s gong to be a tough task, but he’s one of the best shot-stoppers nationally. That’s al you can ask for (well, not all: he’s been a liability in the clearing game at times, though experience should help).
The backup role is officially a question mark, with neither sophomore Michael Turnbull nor freshman Logan Shamblin having seen playing time yet. We’ll see if Weber can remain effective and in the good graces of his coaches enough to keep the backups irrelevant.
The offense should take huge strides with most of the top players back. The defense is going to be a huge question mark with very few of the top players back.
Where Detroit will probably win and lose games is in possession. They’ve been turnover-happy since time immemorial, even when they have players from geographic areas that would lead you to believe they’ll have good sticks and solid decision-making (such as the Canadians and Long Islanders we’ve seen a good number of over the years). Those turnovers give away an offensive possession and produce fast-break opportunities for opponents. Those are two things the Titans can’t afford.
The heavy ride and aggressive defense have faded in the past couple seasons with Chris Kolon’s staff taking full control of the program, which is sad in terms of how much fun they are, but should theoretically result in a little more stability on defense and offense: if your philosophy is chaos, your games are going to be chaotic.
Is a less chaotic team worth it if they’re not turning that stability into more wins? I don’t think the question is going to be relevant this year with a step forward.
Unless the defense just can’t get it done, I don’t see a way this team finishes sixth in the MAAC. They seem to get doubted in the pre-season poll each and every year, and while they’ve yet to win the conference outright in the regular season (their only championship was the tournament title in 2013 that saw them make a serious play to upset Notre Dame in the NCAA Tournament), they tend to outperform those low expectations.
A couple wins in the MAAC is hardly a lofty goal, but it would probably be more than most expect of the Titans. Winning enough games (typically three) to make it into the conference championship is totally reasonable. The non-conference schedule has both games that look pretty tough (Ohio State, Marquette, Air Force) and what should be chances to rack up wins (Mercer, Bellarmine, Cleveland State) mixed in with what should be a competitive bunch.
A winning record and a trip back to the MAAC Championships would be a very nice season for the Titans.