2016 NCAA Men's Lacrosse Tournament First Round
#6 Marquette (11-4) vs North Carolina (8-6)
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The Golden Eagles earned the right to play host for their first ever NCAA tournament game courtesy of wins over Villanova and Denver in the Big East tournament. That gave Marquette the conference's automatic bid to the tournament, but that wasn't enough for the home game. It was the RPI and strength of schedule boosts from merely playing Villanova and Denver that really shoved MU into the national spotlight. That's how Marquette ended up being declared to be the sixth best team in the entire country by the NCAA selection committee, outpacing national lacrosse powers like Loyola-Maryland, Syracuse, Duke, Johns Hopkins, and the self same Tar Heels that will be coming to Milwaukee.
North Carolina had to sweat it out on Selection Sunday a little bit. Not because of the six losses, necessarily: Hofstra and Denver at home along with Maryland on the road and a pair of losses to Syracuse aren't the worst things in the world. It was that second loss to the Orange that made them wait for an at-large bid, as the Tar Heels fell in the ACC semifinals and thus missed out on the automatic bid that Syracuse ended up snagging. The biggest thing that probably kept the Heels from hosting a game in the first round was a road loss to Massachusetts. I mean, the Minutemen beat UNC 14-9 for one of their four - count 'em, FOUR - wins on the season. (Aside: what a weird year for UMass, who was 3-4 with two wins over ranked teams after the UNC win.)
Steve Pontrello will be the focal point of Marquette's defense, which will head into the NCAA tournament as the #10 scoring defense in the country. Pontrello, who will hit the 40 goal plateau if he scores against Marquette, will likely draw the defensive attention of B.J. Grill as MU executes game plan #1: Eliminate what your opponent does best. In 120 minutes against Villanova and Denver in the Big East tournament, Grill and his compatriots held Jake Froccaro (#9 in the country in goals/game) and Connor Cannizzaro (#6 in goals/game) to a grand total of one goal. That lone marker came from Froccaro with just 78 seconds left in a game that Marquette was leading comfortably, and it had the added bonus of being the only goal Froccaro scored in two games against MU this season.
The Golden Eagles have proven time and time again that they can wipe a team's best scorer off the board, maybe even their two best, which is what they did against Denver in the Big East title game. If they can corral Pontrello, then UNC will just turn to the four-pack of dudes who have scored at least 20 goals this season. Probably not coincidentally, those four guys plus Pontrello are the only Tar Heels who have started all 14 games this season. Pontrello ends up with the team lead in points given his wide margin in goals, but Marquette can't ignore Luke Goldstock. He's UNC's second best goal scorer (23), but he leads the team in assists with 20.
On the other end of the field, Ryan McNamara and his Marquette single season record of 38 goals is actually outpacing Pontrello in total points. The difference is that McNamara doesn't have the prolific backup that Pontrello does. Part of this has to do with the overall pace of both teams as you can see in the Fancy Math chart up top. The Tar Heels are running a bit faster than Marquette, and their offense connects with the back of the net in a more efficient manner, too. Still, Marquette's going to have their hands full with the UNC defensive corps. Their two best guys in terms of caused turnovers - Evan Connell and Jack Rowlett - aren't the two guys on defense that the ACC coaches like the most. Instead, it was senior Jake Matthai and junior Austin Pifani who were named all-ACC this season.
The netminding advantage in this game in terms of experience tips in favor of the Tar Heels. Marquette's Cole Blazer has only played in Marquette's last eight games as the Golden Eagles went 5-3 in those contests. Meanwhile, on the other end of the field, Brian Balkam might be a redshirt sophomore who only played 221 minutes last year, but he's been the main guy for UNC this year, starting 13 of their 14 games and playing more than 700 minutes. Other than that, statistically speaking, the two goalies are fairly even. The two men have similar goals against averages (9.65 for Balkam, 9.53 for Blazer) as well as a very similar save percentage (50.4% for Blazer, 49.1% for Balkam).
As odd as it may sound, the game might hinge completely on who comes out ahead on faceoffs. Both primary faceoff guys for both teams earned all-conference honors for their respective sides, and both are winning more than 57% of their draws. UNC's Stephen Kelly (58.5%) is out-doing Zachary Melillo (57.1%), but Melillo's coming off a performance where he out-dueled Denver's Trevor Baptiste. Baptiste is one of the five best faceoff guys in the country, but Melillo 1) kept him way under his 68% average and 2) actually beat him, 12-11. If Melillo can duplicate that against Kelly, the Golden Eagles could find themselves with the ability to limit UNC's much faster offense.