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A little over two weeks ago, Syracuse found itself in a must-win situation to avoid going under .500 with a two-game Atlantic Coast Conference road trip coming up. The Orange’s leading goal-scorer, Chase Scanlan, had just been suspended, and their defense was ravaged with injuries to starter Nick DiPietro and vital short-sticks Dami Oladunmoye and Brandon Aviles.
SU, which came into the season as one of the favorites to win it all, was fighting to just ensure a spot in the NCAA Tournament. But a win at Virginia to sweep the season-series against the Cavaliers rid SU of its tournament doubts.
Scanlan’s replacement, Owen Seebold, earned four points against UVA, and an inexperienced defense held firm for a 13-11 win. Jakob Phaup dominated at the faceoff X after a slump midway through the season, winning 24-of-27 draws at Virginia.
“Had we lost today, we would have been pretty desperate next week,” SU head coach John Desko said after beating Virginia.
Along with a strong non-conference slate of wins against three of the top four America East teams, Syracuse’s (7-5, 2-4 ACC) resume earned one of eight at-large bids to the NCAA Tournament, along with all of its ACC foes. The Orange, not seeded, will face No. 5 Georgetown, the Big East champions, in the first round on Saturday at 7:30 p.m.
A close early-season loss at Duke didn’t haunt SU. The Orange battled back from down 12-5 before Michael Sowers scored the game-winner with under four minutes to play. SU attack Stephen Rehfuss almost sent the game to overtime in the final seconds, but he was unable to get his off-balance shot at the crease past Duke goalie Mike Adler.
If Syracuse won that game, it would have sealed its resume early. The NCAA’s criteria for selection prioritizes results against top-rated teams per RPI, and Duke finished the season second in that category.
The Orange still had a leg-up on non-ACC teams with a high strength-of-schedule, though Tim Leonard, chair of the selection committee, said on the broadcast of the selection show that there was much more subjectivity and reliance on the “eye-test” than in a regular year. Still, all of SU’s losses came to teams that finished the year top-10 in RPI, and Syracuse could boast top-five RPI wins over Virginia. SU’s win over Vermont also grew in importance after the Catamounts secured the America East Tournament championship to clinch an automatic bid to the tournament.
SU’s struggles throughout the season largely stemmed from a lack of possessions. The faceoff unit struggled against every ACC opponent except for Virginia, going a combined 44-for-86 in games against Notre Dame, Duke and North Carolina.
Georgetown will not be an easy matchup for the Syracuse faceoff unit, either. The Hoyas have won 60.4% of draws this year, which is 11th in the nation. Syracuse also ranks 47th in the nation in clearing percentage, and missed clears cost the Orange heavily in losses to UND and UNC.
An offense that returned all six starters from last year and added No. 2 incoming freshman Owen Hiltz didn’t have the ball enough to swing games. In Syracuse’s five losses, the offense only had the ball 39.7% of the time, whereas in seven wins, the time of possession percentage jumped to 55%, per Lacrosse Reference.
Off-ball issues plagued Syracuse’s defense, which North Carolina and Notre Dame especially exposed with offenses based on ball movement. The nation’s No. 4 in assists per game, the Fighting Irish’s Pat Kavanagh, earned 19 points in two games against the Orange. That made up nearly a third of his total season production.
The NCAA Tournament is a full reset, though. If SU gets past Georgetown, it could potentially face No. 4 seed Virginia in the quarterfinals, a matchup that’s proven favorable so far this season and could land Syracuse in its first Final Four since 2013. That was the minimum expectation, players said at the start of the season, and the Orange have a path to get there.
“We look at it as a whole new season,” Desko said after Syracuse beat Robert Morris on Friday. “We’ve played, I think, the one or two in strength of schedule at a point last week, so … it makes you better. It’s going to help us going into the playoffs.”
Georgetown features the top-ranked scoring defense in the country and a top-15 offense. The Hoyas don’t turn the ball over much and have the highest clearing rate in the nation, at a little over 90%. The balanced squad comes into the NCAA Tournament having won eight of its last nine games, including the Big East semifinal and final.
Much of Georgetown’s offense runs through TJ Haley, whose 47 assists leads not just his team, but also the nation. Jake Carraway and Graham Bundy Jr. lead the way in finishing off those passes, combining for 80 goals this year.
Having played largely just a Big East schedule, there aren’t many data points to suggest how the Hoyas rank nationally. They did struggle, losing once against Denver and lost to Duke and North Carolina earlier in the season.
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