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ACC Men's Lacrosse Preview

Back when they were in the Big East, Syracuse fans used to hate it when we talked about the ACC being "big-boy lacrosse," but it was true then and it's true now: the ACC has more elite athletes than any other league, and it's not close.

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Here we go.

After six weeks of non-conference action, Duke enters the four-week cauldron of ACC regular-season play when the Blue Devils travel to Syracuse to take on the Orange on Sunday at 12:30 Eastern. After Syracuse, Duke is at North Carolina at 1:00 p.m. Eastern on the 29th, home to Notre Dame at 5:00 p.m. Eastern on April 4, and home to Virginia at noon Eastern on April 12. The ACC Tournament comes up Friday through Sunday, April 24-26, at PPL Park in Chester, PA.

By any metrics you can imagine, the ACC is the 800-pound gorilla of men's college lacrosse. Not even in Mike Silve's wildest dreams has any conference dominated a sport to this extent.

How dominant? Take a look at this.

ACC at a Glance


Record (ACC)


(IL Poll)

Adj. Off. Eff.


Adj. Def. Eff.





7-1 (0-0)


44.53% (4)

27.76% (19)


North Carolina

9-0 (0-0)


48.52% (2)

23.83% (6)


Notre Dame

4-1 (1-0)


48.71% (1)

21.49% (4)



6-0 (1-0)


42.51% (8)

23.44% (5)



5-2 (0-2)


43.29% (7)

29.78% (27)


Is that crazy? Yes, that's crazy. As a group, the ACC teams are 29-2 in non-conference play, with both losses coming to preseason number one Denver.

Back when they were in the Big East, Syracuse fans used to hate it when we talked about the ACC being "big-boy lacrosse," but it was true then and it's true now: the ACC has more elite athletes than any other league, and it's not close. The Player Impact Ratings tell the story. If you look at the owners of the top 40 PIRs (top ten at each position), 12 play in the ACC. By comparison, the Ivy League has seven, and the Big Ten has four. Two of the four perfect ratings belong to Duke's Myles Jones and North Carolina's Jimmy Bitter.

Here's a thumbnail sketch of the rest of the league.


The Orange took over the top spot in the polls after Denver lost to North Carolina in late February, and no one has stepped up to knock them off their perch. When you watch them, they don't knock your socks off, and with one exception their metrics aren't awe-inspiring, but they've won comfortably against top teams.

The big news is that Syracuse has a faceoff guy-and not just any faceoff guy. Ben Williams, a sophomore transfer from Holy Cross, has won almost 69 percent of his draws on the season, giving the Orange a possession margin of 11 per game.

The Orange offense is attack-oriented (a recurring theme around the league), with the staring attack accounting for 48.3 percent of the team's goals. Kevin Rice is a certain first-team All-American, and Dylan Donahue is an elite finisher, but the guy you can't take your eyes off is Randy Staats. The senior from Ontario, a bronze medalist with the Iroquois Nationals at the 2014 World Championship, has the complete array of box skills, and the judgment to not overdo it. The Orange don't get much from their first midfield unit of converted attackman Nicky Galasso, Hakeem Lecky, and Henry Schoonmaker, and get even less from their second unit, but what they get has been enough so far.

The defense is built around the best cover defenseman in the country, Brandon Mullins, and Sean Young is also capable of blanketing his man. The defensive midfield is perhaps the Orange's only significant liability. Bobby Wardwell has a 53.7 save percentage, and he is backed up by World Championship medalist Warren Hill.

Duke is 4-2 against the Orange since 2011, and 5-7 overall in a series that dates to 1938.

Duke probably can't stop the Orange attack, and Syracuse definitely can't stop Duke's first midfield. The difference in the game is likely to be possession margin. The Orange average almost 13 turnovers and two blown clears per game, so if the Brothers Rowe can battle Williams to a standoff, an advantage in non-faceoff ground balls could be telling.

North Carolina

The Tar Heels haven't made it to Memorial Day weekend in 22 years. If they don't get there this year, it may be a while. Carolina is loaded with senior talent, and so far they are playing like a team on a mission.

We're accustomed to the Tar Heels putting up big offensive numbers, and they're still doing it. They average a gaudy 16.2 goals per game despite playing at a fairly pedestrian pace (65.7 possessions per game, good for 27th in the country), led by diminutive (no Smurf jokes, please) senior attackmen Jimmy Bitter and Joey Sankey. Sophomore Luke Goldstock gives them a third threat at attack. The offensive midfield crew, led by senior Chad Tutton and sophomore Payton Klawinski (whose emergence is one of the big stories of the season), is deep and talented.

The real surprise so far is that the Tar Heels are playing sensational defense. Austin Pifani, who might have been the best freshman defenseman in the country last year, is continuing to develop, Jake Bailey has been outstanding, and Jake Matthai has quietly become one of the best SSDMs in a league that features the two best in the country at that position. Goaltending and faceoffs have been areas of relative weakness for the Tar Heels so far.

Carolina leads the overall series, 39-31, but it has been all Duke for the last decade, with the Blue Devils winning 17 of the last 19 going back to 2004.

What to expect? It's Duke-Carolina. Expect a war.

Notre Dame

We know the Fighting Irish: suffocating defense and … suffocating defense. Right?

Not this year. Through four games, ND leads the country in adjusted offensive efficiency at 48.71 percent; if it holds for the season, that would be the second highest figure recorded since 2010. The Irish force almost 17 turnovers per game, and while they aren't volume shooters, their shot selection is exceptional; almost two-thirds of their shot attempts are on target, and over half of those find the net.

Over half of the Irish scoring comes from the starting attack; freshman attackman Mikey Wynne leads the team with 19 goals. A deep and diversified midfield is led by Sergio Perkovic's 11 goals. The big, athletic defense, featuring close defender Garrett Epple and SSDM Jack Near, is holding opponents to nine goals per game on 27 percent shooting. Sophomore Shane Doss has taken over in net and has a 55.7 percent save percentage.

Nothing the Irish do jumps off the page and says "exceptional." They just do everything well.

Since 2010, Duke is 1-4 against Notre Dame in the regular season and 4-0 in the NCAA tournament, including two wins in the championship game. The Blue Devils blew out the Irish last year in South Bend. It's hard to see anyone blowing them out this year.


2015 is shaping up to be the annus horribilis for the Cavaliers. Their defense was ravaged by injuries and transfers even before the season began, and they will miss James Pannell, one of their primary offensive options, for the rest of the season after he blew out a knee in practice on March 12. At 5-2, with games remaining against Johns Hopkins, North Carolina, Duke, and resurgent Georgetown, plus either the ACC tournament or the ACC showcase game against Penn, the Cavs are already on thin ice in terms of an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.

The Cavs have the best scoring balance in the league; their six double-figure scorers include all three starting attackmen and the entire first midfield unit. Sophomore attackman Ryan Lukacovic leads the team with 25 points (13g, 12a).

Virginia's problems are at the other end of the field. Their starting close defense, made up of a former walk-on and two freshmen, is learning on the job, and right now that unit isn't up to ACC standards. Senior Tanner Ottenbreit is one of the league's better LSMs, and Matt Barrett is having a superb season in goal, but the Cavs lack quality SSDMs, and are last in the league on faceoffs by a big margin, winning only 40.7%.

Duke has owned the Cavs in recent years, winning 14 of the last 15 meetings.

Desperate teams are always dangerous, but Duke is likely to be heavily favored against the Cavs, and for valid reasons.


What can we expect? Four hotly contested, probably high-scoring games. Duke's first midfield of Myles Jones, Deemer Class, and Chad Cohan is the best unit in the country, and it's not close. Their 87 total points is more than four of the five starting attack units in the ACC. Jack Bruckner has made a seamless transition from midfield to attack, and along with freshman Justin Guterding provides a measure of scoring balance. Duke's offense has been hurt by injuries to attackman Case Matheis and midfielder Jake Seau, but has still put up elite numbers. Duke's midfield defense, led by certain All-American SSDM Will Haus, has been very good, but the close defense is still learning, and with the ACC looking like an attack-oriented league in 2015, that's a problem. The Brothers Rowe have been outstanding on faceoffs, but Luke Aaron has been up-and-down in goal.

Any outcome is possible, although I think 4-0 and 0-4 are the two least likely possibilities. If I had to bet real money, I'd bet on 2-2 with wins over Notre Dame and Virginia and losses to Syracuse and North Carolina.