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Forward Thinking: Army-Syracuse

The champions of the Patriot League are set to faceoff against the champions of the Big East on Sunday evening in the Carrier Dome. The last time these two schools met (February 28, 2010), Syracuse pulled out a 12-7 victory behind a ferocious ride and a strong defensive performance.

What will Sunday bring? Let's take a look at each school's profile and set the focus.

ARMY

What Army Does Well
  1. Share the ball. Army is 13th in the country in offensive assist rate (assists per 100 possessions) and it isn't an anomaly. For an institution that emphasizes the "team" approach to success, the Black Knights have epitomized that on the field this season. The Syracuse defense will need to keep its head on a swivel and really read its slides as Army can punish a team with its willingness to share the ball, especially on extra-man opportunities.

  2. Deny the easy look. As much as Army likes to move the bean on offense, it's even better at disallowing opponents the same luxury. The Military Academy is second nationally in defensive assist rate, which strongly hints at the fact that teams are simply beating the Cadets more in one-on-one situations. 200 years of teaching future officers how to divide and conquer is not lost on Lou Alberici's group.

  3. Limiting shots. This derives from the second point, but deserves its own treatment. Army is ninth in the country in defensive effective shooting percentage (this merely measures an opponent's shooting performance when weighted for man-up, man-down, and even-strength goals). It is no surprise that teams are registering frustrating shooting performances against the Cadets as Army is quite good at shutting down assist opportunities. As Syracuse isn't exactly putting on firing exhibitions these days, this is a major advantage for the Black Knights.

What Army Does Poorly

  1. Generate offensive opportunities. This is Army's Achilles' heel. On the year, the Cadets' opponents have three more offensive opportunities a game than Army. There are only ten teams in Division I that are worse than the Military Academy in this metric. This fact puts an incredible amount of pressure on Army's defense to carry the day and for its offense to put good shots on cage every time it possesses the ball.

  2. Win faceoffs. The Cadets are winning only 40% of it's draws this season. There is only one team worse from the faceoff "x" this year (Wagner) and that's not company you want to keep.

  3. Dominate the ride. There are three pieces of the possession puzzle: faceoffs, clearing the ball from your end, and denying opponents the opportunity to clear. We've already established that Army doesn't generate many offensive opportunities and it's due to failing to win draws (as noted) and its relative inability to ruin opponent clears. Clocking in at 38th in the country, opponents are clearing the ball against the Cadets at a 79% rate. Once again, a common theme appears: Army does a lot of things to itself to put pressure on its own defense.

SYRACUSE

What Syracuse Does Well

  1. Ride you like a mechanical bull. While Syracuse hasn't exactly put together 60 minutes of solid lacrosse this season, the Orange rarely takes a possession (or, to be more technical, a transition opportunity) off. Desko's charges are 8th in the country in opponent clearing percentage (77%). This ability to cause mistakes creates two issues: 1) Syracuse can play at the increased pace it desires (the Orange is 4th in the country in tempo); and 2) It creates greater offensive opportunities for Syracuse (the Orange is averaging seven more offensive possessions a game than its opponents).

  2. Create possession opportunities. Syracuse is eighth in faceoff percentage this year (56.7%) and 10th in clearing percentage (86%). This is especially important for the Orange as its offensive efficiency is only 17th-best in the land. In short, it doesn't matter how well Syracuse is necessarily performing on offense as it simply creates more offensive opportunities to succeed. It's a volume issue that's carrying Syracuse to success.

  3. Getting a stick on your hands. Like Army, Syracuse has done a great job this year in forcing opponents into bad shots (the Orange's defensive effective shooting percentage is only about 22%, good for seventh nationally). The more you see numbers like that, the more you have to believe that Joel White is the most important player on Syracuse's roster.

What Syracuse Does Poorly

  1. Grow the pie. I took a negotiation class in law school and one of the concepts was "growing the pie." The idea behind this was that zero-sum outcomes aren't always the most beneficial; sometimes, it's best to use cooperation to achieve desired ends. That isn't the case for Syracuse lacrosse this year. The Orange is only 29th in assist rate and is getting a large majority of goals on single-man dodge-and-scores.

  2. Shoot the ball. There's two areas of this point that are troublesome. First, Syracuse is firing off just under a shot per possession. This is only good for 27th nationally. Second, even when the Orange is shooting, it isn't burying the bean all that well. Syracuse clocks in at 20th in offensive effective shooting percentage. It isn't a coincidence that the Orange saw so many keepers with "game-of-their-life" performances. The fact of the matter is that Syracuse just isn't placing the ball all that well.

FOCUS

Having the luxury of Syracuse having already met Army this season, the following points of emphasis do maintain foundation when viewed in the context illustrated above.

  1. If Syracuse dominates the faceoff game, Army is sunk. It was proven in the first game (Syracuse won 65% of the draws) and there's no reason to believe that if Army continues to struggle at the "x" that it can topple the Orange.

  2. This will be a defensive battle. Neither team is a particularly good shooting team (the numbers indicate that Army is a little better as it holds down the 20th position in offensive effective shooting percentage), but both on tenacious on the defensive end. Whoever can solve the defensive riddle may simply win.

  3. If Syracuse sticks to its ride, Army will crack. Even though the Cadets are defensively strong, there's only so much a defense can take before wilting. Syracuse may beat the Army defense simply through offensive possession volume if the Military Academy can't get it out of its own defensive end.

  4. Army's best chance to win is to slow the pace and deliberately attack. Syracuse wants a track meet; Army wants to play around the national average (70 or so possessions per game). In the first game, the teams played 83 possessions and the Orange prevailed. With Army's slow pace and desire to generate easy goals through assists, the Cadets would be wise to sit on the ball and create opportunities through off-ball offensive movement rather than unsettled transition situations.

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