Final Four players, matchups to watch
Editor's note: Each week, 2005 Tewaaraton winner, four-time Major League Lacrosse All-Star and current LXM pro player Kyle Harrison and former Virginia All-American, Major League Lacrosse All-Star and current LXM pro player Brett Hughes will use this space to debate college lacrosse's biggest storylines.
1. What do the teams that lost in the quarterfinals need to do to take the next step?
Hughes: Well, a couple of them got a tough draw, so I'd say they have to just win the recruiting battle. And teams such as North Carolina are on that path -- the Tar Heels have a couple of fantastic classes coming in. I believe UNC is a tough team, but right now Duke's offense is just too much for just about everyone. Maryland has the talent in place; the Terps need to step up in bigger games. They need to realize they have a huge target on their backs, and teams like Notre Dame can step up and steal a game. Maryland is a more talented team, but Notre Dame played a smart game, grabbing an early lead and then packing it in on both offense and defense. Army and Stony Brook have further to go. Stony Brook is a fantastic team that played neck-and-neck with Virginia. I believe the Seawolves are closer to making a push for the top 10 than Army. The Knights have some great players and always hustle, but need help on the recruiting trail to compete with the elite teams.
Harrison: I honestly can't figure out UNC at all! The Heels were my pick to win it all a few weeks back and it seems like the wheels came off a bit. They have tons of talent, and arguably the most talented player in the country in Billy Bitter. I know he took a really bad hit a little while back and that definitely had an impact on him the rest of the season. I expected more of this team and it would have been great for our sport to have them present on Monday. I'm a huge Sean Delaney fan as well, so I would have liked to see him go out on top. As for the other teams, it's a tough question to answer. For starters, you've got to wholeheartedly believe you're going to be there on Monday. The goal can't be to make the quarterfinals or the Final Four, the goal has got to be getting to the championship game on Monday. A lot of these teams have the talent to be there, but the mentality and belief that you can/will get there may not be in place yet. Clearly there are other things that go into it, but I think the mental side definitely could be a hurdle.
2. Who has the advantage in the Duke-Virginia rubber match?
Hughes: The Blue Devils are playing really hot right now; they are the team to beat. Virginia is better end-to-end, but Duke is red hot and is led by great players. If Shamel and Rhamel Bratton and Brian Carroll get going early, Virginia could make it a long day for Duke. Watch UVa's Ryan Nizolek and Ken Clausen on Duke's Max Quinzani and Ned Crotty -- probably the best matchups of the tournament. I don't think it's out of left field to say that talentwise, this side of the bracket might determine the NCAA champion.
Harrison: Well, this is tough for me, because I don't like either team. (Can't help it, I was trained to hate them!) Anyway, both teams have a lot of goal scorers. I've got to go with Virginia because I think the Cavs have some game changers on the defensive end of the field. Faceoffs will be huge because both teams are capable of going on some big runs and putting points on the board. If one of the teams could get in to a make-it, take-it situation, I could see it getting a little lopsided! But at the end of the day, I'd bet this one will come down to whoever has the ball last.
3. In a field of teams with Final Four experience, what can Notre Dame do to prepare itself for Baltimore?
Hughes: Just don't worry about Baltimore and the hoopla around championship weekend. Stay close to your team, enjoy the Final Four dinner, the media, etc., but when it's done, just go and be with your team and really focus in on Cornell. The Irish just beat a great Maryland team, so they need to dial in on a new color of red for this next game.
Harrison: Stay together and block out everything else. Yes, it's exciting to be at the Final Four, but that isn't the end goal. Study film, study the game plan, and get mentally prepared for the game on Saturday. Don't get caught up in everything else that comes with being a part of championship weekend.
4. Which players will be the difference-makers during the semifinals/final?
Harrison: Well, I think there are a few names we'll be hearing all weekend. Shamel Bratton loves the big stage and will most definitely be ready to go to work, as will Brian Caroll, and Ken Clausen. Rhamel Bratton's shooting wasn't dialed as much as we've become used to last weekend, but I bet he'll be ready to go come Saturday. Max Quinzani, Ned Crotty and Zach Howell will be difference-makers as well. A lot of the biggest names in college lacrosse will be playing in the Virginia-Duke game on Saturday, and it will be interesting to see which group of stars pushes their team over the top. As for the second game, Rob Pannell and Ryan Hurley have to show up and produce for Cornell, while Zach Brenneman and Grant Krebs need to pace the Irish from the midfield. A hot faceoff man or a hot goalie can definitely push a team over the edge, but in my opinion, to win on Monday, the stars on these teams have to play like stars and lead their respective teams to the title.
Hughes: Good picks, Kyle. I'm saying right now the most important kids this weekend are Virginia's Steele Stanwick and Clausen, Duke's Crotty, the entire D-middie/long pole unit for Duke, as well as Pannell and Krebs. Stanwick needs to be the quarterback of the offense and not let the UVa guns up top get ahead of themselves, depending on how the game goes. I believe he has the best read on the game of anyone in the Final Four, short of Crotty. Pannell just needs to do what he always does and take the pressure off his team, while Krebs needs to be the guy out in front making every play between the lines. I'm all about goalies in the Final Four, and the Hoos' Adam Ghitelman is as hot as anyone.
5. What's your championship game prediction?
Hughes: I think we'll see Virginia-Cornell on Monday -- a rematch of the beat down Cornell gave UVa last year. I think Cornell comes out very aggressive and tries to get on top of a UVa team that will be coming off a crazy, exhausting mental and physical battle with Duke. If the Big Red get up early, they have to take a page out of Notre Dame's playbook on how to take down a top-four team. No matter which teams make the final, the faceoff game will determine how close of a game it is.
Harrison: I'm honestly not sure about the Virginia-Duke game. I really think it's going to come down to whichever team has the ball last. I can't bring myself to say Duke will win, so I'm going to go with Virginia and Notre Dame. And unfortunately, the Cavs will be too much for the Irish to handle in the end, and the trophy will go back to Charlottesville.
Brett Hughes is the co-founder and vice president of Lacrosse the Nations. You can check out the group's work here. Going to Baltimore? Harrison and Hughes will be signing autographs and hanging out with fans at the STX tent on Saturday, so stop by and say hello.
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