Two top-5 teams will meet up for what will likely be the first of two or possibly three matchups this season, as both Syracuse University and the North Carolina Tar Heels have national championship aspirations. While the game itself doesn’t hold major significance – both teams are guaranteed a top 3 slot in the ACC tournament – this will be Syracuse’s first trip to North Carolina in 22 years. A massive turnout is expected for the UNC home crowd, as two very similar teams with high octane offenses are sure to put on a memorable show. The winner of this game has an outside shot at the No. 1-seed for the ACC tournament and will take another step to securing a possible No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament. There are several intriguing matchups to keep an eye on Saturday. Here are a few I will be watching:
Ben Williams vs Stephen “Bones” Kelly
After last Thursday’s complete dominance of Albany at the X (24-of -27) it’s clear Ben Williams is the MVP of this Syracuse team. It’s one thing to be one of the best at your position, but when an opposing coach calls it the best performance at the X he has ever seen and Lyle Thompson calls you the best faceoff specialist in the nation, you know you are in elite company. Carolina will try and counter with true sophomore Stephen “Bones” Kelly, who has taken nearly every draw for the Tar Heels this season. Kelly, a heralded recruit in the 2013 class, was having a fantastic freshman season before breaking his hand midway through the year, costing him the remainder of the season. Kelly is winning a respectable 51% of his draws on the year but has yet to return to his pre-injury form from 2014. Williams is now winning a mindboggling 70% of his draws and continues to win the faceoff battle week and after week regardless of the opponent or technique used against him. For Carolina a 50/50 split at the faceoff X would be a good result. Carolina will likely try a wrinkle or two with their wing play, perhaps going with a double pole or a strategy to harass Williams once he wins the draw. For Syracuse the key will be the play of the starting wing players Mike Messing and Scott Firman. While improved from recent years, the wing play for the Orange has been inconsistent when teams have been able to turn the faceoff into a scrum. If Williams isn’t winning draws outright it will be critical that Messina and Firman provide support. If they struggle, look for coach Desko to turn to Peter Macartney and Henry Schoonmaker.
North Carolina Attack vs Syracuse Defense
While the Tar Heels certainly have a respectable midfield, the life blood of their offense is the outstanding starting attack. Seniors Joey Sankey and Jimmy Bitter lead the way with sophomore Luke Goldstock rounding out the starting trio. Goldstock is having a breakout season, as he leads the team in goals (35) and has given the UNC attack an embarrassment of riches. Bitter (61 pts.) and Sankey (54 pts.) are the two top point scorers for the Heels and are very similar players. Both players are small and lightning quick with the ability to score in close off of a dodge or to step down and shoot from 10-15 yards. With their ability to dodge from X, both have put up at least 30 assists with Goldstock being a major beneficiary. The speed of both Bitter and Sankey will present some matchup problems for the Orange defense.
Brandon Mullins will likely draw Jimmy Bitter for multiple reasons. Bitter is the leading point scorer for the Heels but at 5-foot-9 he is also the taller of the two players, and from a physical standpoint will be easier for Mullins (6-foot-2) to match up with size wise then the 5-foot-5 Sankey. For Joey Sankey, look for coach John Desko to turn to Ralph D’Agostino, the back up close defender who has played sporadically this season. Of the remaining close defenders, D’Agostino offers the best potential matchup for the Orange. Sean Young, the number two close defender for the Orange, doesn’t have the speed to cover Sankey and third defender Jay McDermott lacks the experience and skill at this point in his Orange career. Look for Young to draw the task of trying to cover Luke Goldstock. Goldstock is a tough draw for Young, as he is much more active than a crease specialist, which Young usually excels in marking. Overall, this will be a very tough assignment for the Orange defenders, especially when you consider the recent stretch of games against the offensive juggernauts of Notre Dame and Albany.
With two of the best offenses in Division I set to battle, the starting goalies of each team will be tested early and often. For Syracuse, Bobby Wardwell is coming off one of his better performances. After a shaky first quarter against the Great Danes, Wardwell made several impressive saves including a few point blank looks from the Albany offense. Wardwell has remained steady throughout the season, turning in several excellent performances. With a .545 save percentage on the year Wardwell has provided the steady presence needed in net for the Orange. Kieran Burke will get the start in the cage for the Heels after giving way to Brian Balkam, who started the first seven games of the year. Burke, a junior, was able to wrestle the starting spot away from Balkam after a few games where UNC coach Joe Bresci went with a platoon system. Burke leads the Heels with a .559 save percentage but has battled inconsistent play his first few years at Chapel Hill. Both goalies will be tested considerably and will need strong performances in the cage to come out with the win.
Syracuse offense vs UNC defense
With Randy Staats primed to return to his starting attack role on Saturday the Orange are poised to have their offense at full strength for the first time in nearly a month. Kevin Rice and Dylan Donahue continue to put up staggering offensive numbers (45 and 43 points, respectively). The return of Staats will allow Syracuse to move Tim Barber back to the second midfield, instantly strengthening that unit and giving Syracuse one of the deepest overall offenses in the nation. With one of, if not the best starting attack in the country, the key to the Orange will again be the play of the midfield. Nicky Galasso and Henry Schoonmaker are coming off of a combined nine goals versus Albany and were nearly unstoppable against the overwhelmed Albany defense. With Galasso returning to UNC for the first time since his transfer back in 2012, emotions will likely play a big role early. With Schoonmaker and Galasso hitting on all cylinders it seems inevitable that Hakeem Lecky will break out with a big game at some point down the stretch. Quiet for much of the past six weeks, Lecky’s lack of accuracy has continued to hound him. He does have a knack for having big games away from the Carrier Dome, making him a wild card for this Saturday.
For Carolina, their top close defender is Austin Pifani, and he will likely draw the assignment of slowing down Kevin Rice. Senior Jake Bailey is a solid defender in his own right and would seem to be the top candidate to mark Dylan Donahue. The Heels also have some young but very talented short stick midfielders who are trying to fill the shoes of some very strong departed seniors from last year’s team. The main issues for the UNC defense will be the third close defender trying to guard Staats, and which two midfielders they will put a short stick on. Jake Matthai is the Heels’ top short stick middie but both he and fellow defensive middie Michael Tagliaferri are dangerous players in transition. Both are comfortable playing on the offensive end and neither will hesitate to push the issue. The key for UNC will be limiting Syracuse possessions. If Ben Williams is winning 60% of the draws, the Orange will look to wear down the Heels’ defense much like they did to Albany. UNC has done an excellent job with their man down defense this year, holding opponents to under a 30% success rate. The Heels do struggle with committing penalties, however, and the Orange could be in line for a high number of man up situations.
In the grand scheme this game doesn’t mean much to either team. With the ACC tournament coming up and a matchup with ND still on the schedule for North Carolina, there will certainly be ample opportunities for each team prior to Selection Sunday. However, Saturday represents an opportunity for one of these teams to grab a top-5 win and a bullet point to their resume for the No. 1 overall seed in the national tournament. For the Orange it ends a brutal stretch of games that saw them take on Johns Hopkins, Duke, ND, Albany, and UNC in succession. Ben Williams will get another test against a high end faceoff specialist and the Orange defense will again have its hands full. The Tar Heels have a good defense overall but the Orange have already faced several top defenses in Army and Notre Dame. Also, the heels are susceptible to giving up scoring runs and haven’t faced a high powered offense like the Orange outside of Denver. With the return of Randy Staats and Ben Williams continuing to win a majority of the faceoff draws, this is a game the Orange should win despite it being only their second true road game – and first on grass – this season.
Final Score: Syracuse 14, UNC 12