Big East Men's Lacrosse Championship Game
#1 Denver (13-1, 5-0 Big East) vs #2 Marquette (10-4, 4-1 Big East)
Keeping it simple: The winner of this game gets the Big East's automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
Diving deeper: Denver's already guaranteed a spot in the tournament. The defending Big East and national champions are ranked #1 in the country in the Cascade/Maverik media poll, and according to LaxPower's approximation, they're #3 in RPI. That's not going to collapse with a loss to a Marquette team that currently sits at #10 in the RPI.
Marquette's situation may be slightly more precarious, though. Earlier this week, Lacrosse Magazine had MU as the final at-large team in the field. Their lot was improved by beating Villanova on Thursday night, since the Wildcats had the second to last at-large spot in the LaxMag projection. A #10 RPI might be enough to carry the Golden Eagles into the 16 team field, and win or lose, that RPI will get boosted just by playing Denver. The strength of schedule will get a shot in the arm, too, and LaxPower has Marquette at #20 in that category right now. Are they probably in the national championship field for the first time in program history? Probably. Is it a guarantee? Not by any stretch of the imagination. Getting the program's first ever win over the Pioneers in the fifth try would be one hell of a way to show everyone that you deserve to be in the tournament, automatic bid or not.
As mentioned in that last sentence, Marquette and Denver have played in each of MU's four years as a Division 1 team. The first ever meeting, a 15-4 Pioneers victory, was a non-conference bout, as Marquette was playing as an independent and Denver was in their final season in the ECAC. Since then, each of the meetings has been a Big East clash, and Denver has come away with the victory each time. 17-9 in 2014 where the Golden Eagles got outscored 10-1 in the middle two quarters, and 18-11 a year ago in the first meeting where both teams were ranked coming into the game. Denver scored 10 straight goals in the early goings to give themselves a 13-1 lead in one of the more depressing games that I've ever watched in person.
"Boy oh boy, we're ranked and we're hosting the Pios, maybe today is our lucky day!"
*Denver turns into an unrelenting Death Star of goals*
That brings us to this year's meeting, where Marquette outscored Denver 11-8 in the first, second, and four quarters, but lost because Denver won the third quarter 6-0. Still, the 14-11 margin is the closest that Marquette has ever come to defeating the Pioneers. Working in Marquette's favor for this rematch just one week later is that the Golden Eagles stayed out in Denver for the last week. It's no secret that Denver's altitude can wreak havoc on the conditioning of visiting teams, and MU has had a week to adjust to it now. In Thursday's semifinal game against Villanova, Marquette displayed the confident, capable play that led them to an 11-3 win over the Wildcats earlier this year, as well as pushing then-number 1 Notre Dame to overtime out in South Bend. It's the first time ever that Marquette has gotten a second crack at the Pioneers, so can they combine a strong performance a week ago and an adjustment to the altitude to come away with a win and the team's first ever Big East championship?
It won't be easy. Denver won the national championship last year for a reason, and they're ranked #1 this late in the season after that title for a reason, too. One of the things that Marquette hangs their hat on under head coach Joe Amplo is shutting down the other team's primary threat. We've seen it time and time against: St. John's Kieran McArdle, Notre Dame's Matt Kavanagh, and most recently, Villanova's Jake Froccaro, who was averaging three goals a game this season coming into Thursday's semifinal game. He scored his only goal in 120 minutes against Marquette this season with 78 seconds left. Like I said, that's what Marquette does.
Or that's at least what they usually do. Last Saturday, Connor Cannizzaro hung four goals and an assist on the Golden Eagles. In the intervening week, Cannizzaro was named Big East Offensive Player of the Year because he ranks sixth in the country in goals per game (3.14) and fifth in points per game (4.71). Stopping Cannizzaro doesn't mean you control the game against the Pioneers, though. They're the second best scoring offense in the country at over 14 goals per game, and while Cannizzaro has more than twice as many goals as any other two of his teammates, there's three other guys on the roster who have scored at least 20 goals and a total of five players are averaging at least one goal per game. Nine different Pios scored against Marquette last week, and if MU wants to hoist that championship trophy on Saturday evening, they're going to need to do something, anything, to slow down that Denver offense.