PHOTO BY RICH BARNES

Navy players celebrate behind dejected Syracuse defenseman Nick Mellen, whose Orange fell to 3-5 against non-conference opponents and have been surprisingly vulnerable in the Carrier Dome.

How the ACC Became Just Another Conference


The signs that this men’s lacrosse season might not play out as a typical year for the vaunted Atlantic Coast Conference began to surface on Feb. 17, at one of the game’s more prestigious venues.

When Syracuse played host at the Carrier Dome to a familiar and dangerous Albany team, few were surprised that the Great Danes won. But the way in which Albany crushed a youthful Orange squad in a 15-3 blowout raised many eyebrows.

More than two months later, it’s safe to say the Orange set the tone for a season of unusual mediocrity across the league, at least judged against the lofty standards of the five-team ACC.

Depending on how things work out over the next two weeks — starting with this weekend’s ACC tournament in Charlottesville, Va. — a shaky regular season conceivably could shake out with the majority of the game’s most prominent conference sitting out the NCAA tournament.

Heading into Charlottesville, where the ACC tournament will not yield an automatic NCAA tournament qualifier, only No. 2 seed Duke (12-2) is truly safe, no matter what happens between now and Selection Sunday on May 6.

The top-ranked Blue Devils, with the game’s third-ranked offense, fifth-ranked defense and an RPI ranking of 3 by the NCAA, have been remarkably consistent and have every right to eye a fourth Division I title under 12th-year coach John Danowski.

As for the rest of the ACC that includes No. 12 Syracuse, No. 15 Notre Dame, No. 13 Virginia and No. 20 North Carolina, not so much.


The raw data indicates that things outside of Duke have been amiss in 2018, starting with the ACC’s 2-6 record against the Big Ten.


North Carolina, two years removed from winning the school’s fifth NCAA crown, is already done with a 7-7 mark.

A seven-game losing streak that began on March 5 doomed the Tar Heels, who will miss the NCAAs for the first time since Joe Breschi took over the program in 2009. Carolina is one of three ACC schools to finish with a 1-3 mark against league competition.

Although Syracuse (7-5) is the top seed — by virtue of a 4-0 record that includes a 15-14 victory over Duke — the Orange are the perfect illustration of the ACC’s bumpy ride in 2018.

In nonconference play, Syracuse has gone 3-5, a hiccup that includes three defeats at the Dome, two of them blowouts by Albany and Johns Hopkins by a combined 23 goals. The last time the Orange lost that often at home was in 2007, when a rare losing season (5-8) included four missteps at home.

Saturday’s stunning 13-12 loss to visiting Navy, which scored twice in the final 12 seconds to win in regulation, left the Orange reeling. Before the Midshipmen silenced the Dome, Syracuse had won 13 of 15 one-goal games over the past two seasons.

“We’ve been so up and down all year long, some of it to be expected with as many young guys as we’re playing, some of it because we’re still making bad decisions late in games,” said John Desko, the 20th-year head coach who has won 243 games and led the Orange to five NCAA titles.

“When you win by five goals, you don’t sweat the small stuff. When you lose by a goal, every mistake is magnified,” he added. “After we beat Duke [on March 24], I thought we’d turned the corner. That’s not been the case. I’m still trying to put my finger on it, whether [the problem] is failed execution or [lack of] emotion or youth. We still have time to fix some things, but not much.”

In typical years, a spotless, regular-season mark in ACC play would make this weekend all about shoring up a first-round home game and a high seed on Selection Sunday. Not this year. If the Orange (RPI 9) loses in Friday’s semifinal to fourth-seeded Virginia — Syracuse edged the Cavs 12-11 on March 4 — it probably must beat Colgate next week to avoid missing out on the postseason.

Syracuse has plenty of uncomfortable company in that regard.

Notre Dame, which under 30th-year coach Kevin Corrigan has been to 10 straight NCAA tournaments and lost to Duke in the final in 2010 and 2014, is on unsteady ground with a 6-5 record.

The Fighting Irish, also 1-3 against their own, have dropped three of their past four, including a damaging 10-9 setback inflicted by the Tar Heels on Saturday. Seeded No. 3 in the ACC tournament, the Irish hold a solid RPI (8) and would clinch an at-large bid to the NCAAs by upsetting second-seeded Duke in the semifinals.

However, if Notre Dame loses on Friday to the Blue Devils (three weeks after Duke left South Bend with an 8-2 win), it might have to avoid an upset next week against visiting Army to keep its string of NCAA tournament appearances rolling.

If Virginia (10-4, RPI 10) knocks off Syracuse on Friday and either wins the tournament on Sunday or avoids an unthinkable loss to VMI in its regular-season finale, the Cavs likely would advance to their first NCAA tournament since 2015. If UVA loses to the Orange, it is probably out once again, since its only signature win would be against Loyola (RPI 5) in the season opener.

As second-year head coach Lars Tiffany well knows, Virginia recently snapped an 18-game losing streak against the ACC by downing North Carolina 15-12.

“There are only two ACC teams [Duke and Syracuse] that deserve to feel confident about being part of what will happen in May,” Tiffany said.








How did it come to this in the ACC, circa 2018?

Is it due to injuries to impact players such as Notre Dame attackman Brendan Gleason, who missed four starts during the Irish’s late slide, or Virginia midfielder Ryan Conrad, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in that loss to Syracuse?

Is it inconsistency in the faceoff and/or goalkeeping games? Is it the youthful inexperience that has shown up across the league? A shortage of playmakers, great shooters, elite athletes, overall depth?

Is it evidence that years of early recruiting have come home to roost, as high school sophomores and freshmen fail to pan out as projected at the Carolinas and Virginias of the lacrosse world? Has the ACC revealed during one strange year that it is not immune to the high-level talent that continues to spread out in the 69-school Division I game?

The answer is probably yes in part to all of the above.

“Most of the nation, outside of the Ivy League, is working with 12.6 scholarships. We’re losing some really good players to other [less prominent] schools,” Tiffany said. “We don’t have as much in the ACC to reload with coming off the bench.

“All of the early recruiting has helped to provide more parity in our game,” Tiffany added. “I also think the new rules [forbidding contact of high school players until Sept. 1 of their junior year] will help the bluebloods. But this year, we are having trouble controlling our own destiny.”

Desko thinks the shifting talent in Division I clearly is having an impact on the performance in the ACC, which has produced eight of the last 20 NCAA champions (Syracuse did not join the league until 2014) and five of the last eight titlists.

“So many teams out there are good, because there is enough good talent to go around,” Desko said. “Even in the ACC, a key injury here or there can change things. Notre Dame loses Gleason and [midfielder Bryan] Costabile — who are you going to hand the ball to [with the game on the line]? If Duke lost [Justin] Guterding and Brad Smith, it’s the same question.”




PHOTO BY LEE WEISSMAN

Hofstra's Mark Ellis sprints past UNC's Parker Alexander during a March 10 game in Hempstead, N.Y. The Pride won 12-6, part of a seven-game losing streak for the Tar Heels, who will miss the NCAA tournament for the first time in the Joe Breschi era.


The ACC should be expected to recover from a checkered season marked by notable stumbles — maybe as soon as 2019.

This weekend in Charlottesville, things could break in a way that eventually allows all four of the league’s surviving members to gobble up at-large slots in the NCAAs. It’s probably a strong bet that three ACC schools will be playing in the second weekend of May.

But there is that chance that only two make it out of the regular season alive. The last time that happened was in 2006, back when the 16-team version of the tournament was a few years old and the ACC still was comprised of four lacrosse schools. Early in the 2006 season, Duke was a title contender that pulled the plug on its season and fired head coach Mike Pressler, as the lacrosse scandal unfolded.

Between 2006 and 2014 — the year conference realignment altered the faces of lacrosse power by reshuffling the ACC and Big East and introducing the Big Ten to the sport — the ACC was a virtual lock to stack the NCAA tournament bracket. For six consecutive years beginning in 2007, the four-team ACC (Duke, Virginia, North Carolina and Maryland) was fully represented. In 2013, only Virginia missed out.

In 2014, the league temporarily expanded to six schools. That included Maryland, which announced it would be leaving for the Big Ten the following year. Also in 2014, Syracuse and Notre Dame joined the ACC, which sent all six teams to the big dance that season.

Since Maryland started playing in the Big Ten three years ago, the five-team ACC has been fully represented in the national tournament, with the exception of Virginia in the past two years.

This year, the raw data indicates that things outside of Duke have been amiss in 2018, starting with the ACC’s 2-6 record against the Big Ten. Duke did not play a Big Ten school.

Syracuse is tied for 25th in scoring offense (11.08 goals per game) and ranks 49th in scoring defense (11.17 goals allowed average). Notre Dame, which traditionally plays to its highly touted defense (ranked 15th), has been inconsistent at that end. The Irish have suffered through some horrible days offensively and are averaging only 8.73 goals — 58th in Division I.

Virginia is still trying to find ways to make stops and protect leads consistently with a high-powered offense featuring elite weapons in Michael Kraus and Dox Aitken. The Cavaliers enter the ACC tournament ranked seventh in scoring offense (12.86) and 50th in scoring defense (11.21).

North Carolina never got fully untracked at either end in March and April. The Tar Heels ended their season ranked 28th in scoring offense (10.93) and 45th in scoring defense (10.93).

“A lot of games have been close. We’ve had some outliers,” said Danowski, alluding to the Blue Devils’ 8-2 win over Notre Dame and the Albany and Hopkins routs at the Carrier Dome. “I see this year as kind of a tribute to how badly everybody wants to beat ACC teams, and there are so many good teams out there. When I coached at Hofstra and we were getting ready for an ACC game, there was no problem with focus in practice. If you’re going to the Dome, you’re playing with house money. It’s exciting to have that opportunity, and if you lose, you’ve still got your conference.

“If only two ACC teams get in this year, that would be the first time since I’ve been here,” added Danowski, who left Hofstra for Duke in the summer of 2006 to replace Pressler. “I think [the ACC] will be OK. With our schools and facilities and the schedules we play, a lot of good players want to play [in the league]. I don’t see that changing.”