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Big East Men’s Lacrosse Semifinals Preview: #1 Denver vs #4 Marquette

For the third straight season, the Golden Eagles meet the Pioneers in the conference tournament.

2014 NCAA Division I Men's Lacrosse Championship - Semifinals Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

2018 Big East Men’s Lacrosse Tournament Semifinals

#1 Denver Pioneers vs #4 Marquette Golden Eagles

Date: Thursday, May 3, 2018
Time: 3:30pm Central
Location: Villanova Stadium, Villanova, PA
Television: CBS Sports Network
Streaming: Sure, if you’ve got DirecTV. Otherwise, hope you’re like me & your cable company has an internal streaming app.
Live Stats: GameTracker
Twitter Updates: @MarquetteMLax
Regular Season Meeting: Denver won, 7-4
All Time Series: Denver leads, 6-2

For the third consecutive year, Marquette will butt heads with Denver in the Big East tournament, and for the second consecutive year, this meeting comes in the semifinals with the Pioneers as the unbeaten #1 seed and the Golden Eagles as the #4 seed.

Marquette has won each of the past two postseason encounters.

It kind of defies all logic and sense, if we’re being honest. Through six regular season meetings, five of which were Big East conference games, Marquette has been outscored 87-47. Even if you throw out the first ever meeting in MU’s first season of competition, that’s still 72-43. Bill Tierney’s Denver program has essentially picked right up where his Princeton program left off. They’re a great team, year in and year out, and have never been ranked lower than #5 in the country when Marquette has squared off with them.

And yet.... somehow.... Marquette is 2-0 against them in May.

First, a completely stunning come from behind 10-9 victory in the Big East championship game in 2016, where Marquette trailed 7-2 late in the second quarter. At least in that case, you can point to a ranked Golden Eagles team losing 14-11 to the Pios in Denver one week earlier and say, “hey, they were close.” Last year, though... wow. DU had beaten Marquette 16-8 in Milwaukee in the regular season finale, and that one was mostly over early in the second quarter when Denver was up 8-2. One week later, though, out in Providence, Denver never led by more than one goal and MU stacked up the final three goals of the game to win 11-8. That one made no sense, as the Golden Eagles had taken a tiny step backwards from 2016.

This year kind of feels the same, with MU taking a tiny step backwards from 2017. Part of it was merely players wrapping up their eligibility, some of it was injuries. Tanner Thomson, a major offensive contributor last season, ended up taking a redshirt year to heal up from a fall ball injury, and a missed games bug just started flittering around the team. Only five guys have started all 13 games this season, and remember: There’s 10 players in the starting lineup. Only 11 players have appeared in all 13 games. On some level, the fact that Marquette is 6-7 with five overtime or last 10 seconds of regulation game winners is goddamned miraculous. A team with as little experience as Marquette has on offense this year with as little continuity that MU has had due to guys missing time should not be able to gut out victory after victory like that.

And yet, they have.

That brings us to this year’s regular season finale against — of course — Denver. I don’t know why the Big East schedule makers keep giving us MU versus DU in the final week of the regular season, but that’s what keeps happening. To their credit, the Big East regular season crown keeps hanging in the balance, so I guess you can’t blame them for aiming for the most possible drama every season. Anyway, Marquette stymied the Denver offense last week Saturday, holding them to just seven goals, well below their season average that was approaching 13. I’d like to think that if the MU defense has another 60 minutes of that kind of performance in them, they’ll at the very least be competitive with the Pioneers.

The question, I suppose, is whether or not the Marquette offense can hold up its end of the bargain. That was not the case in the regular season finale, as MU managed just four goals total and only one of them came in the normal function of the offense. One was off a Denver turnover coming out of a face-off, one was because MU’s own face-off specialist won the draw and scored, and the final one came right at the very end of a shorthanded situation for the Golden Eagles.

Marquette’s primary problem was the one thing that’s always going to give you fits if you can’t be in control of it: possession. Denver has the best face-off man in college lacrosse history in Trevor Baptiste, and he won 11 of his 13 draws in the game, including all six in the first half and both of them in the fourth quarter. Next up, Marquette struggled with holding onto the ball. The Golden Eagles committed 12 turnovers in the game, including five in the third quarter when they were starting to trade goals with the Pioneers. Now, in a sport like lacrosse where you’re using a stick to propel a ball in the air as opposed to throwing it with your hand, there’s always going to be some unavoidable turnovers just due to weird accuracy issues, and to be fair to MU, Denver coughed it up 14 times themselves. However, if you’re trying to pull a shocker of an upset, you can’t turn it over that often.

Finally, a very specific kind of turnover was damaging to Marquette, as they had four failed clearances in the first three quarters of the game, and three in the first 19 minutes of the game. If you’re trying to pull a massive upset against a top five team, you have to take advantage of gifts sometimes. When you make a save or force a turnover or even just catch a break by way of a bad pass by your opponent, you have to at least get the ball out of your own end every single time. Before Marquette even registered their 11th shot of the game, they had already handed the ball back to Denver in their own defensive end of the field three times. It’s just not a recipe for success.

If Marquette wants to find themselves in Saturday’s Big East championship game, they’re going to need to find a way to put a lid on Austin French and Ethan Walker. Denver’s star offensive duo had four goals and three assists in the regular season finale, accounting for seven of DU’s 11 points all by themselves. Now, yes, in general, the MU defense played exceptionally well, holding Walker and French to just nine total shots in 60 minutes. However, MU’s best bet for swinging the upset victory is going to be forcing someone else on the Pioneer roster to beat them.