Joe Breschi’s Offseason Overhaul Started with a Look in the Mirror

PHOTO BY LEE WEISSMAN

“We’ve been average,” North Carolina coach Joe Breschi says. “I had to take a good look at how I was leading.”


US Lacrosse Magazine released the Nike/US Lacrosse Division I Men’s Preseason Top 20 on Jan. 2. Team-by-team previews will be unveiled on uslaxmagazine.com through the end of the month and will also appear as part of the magazine’s NCAA preview edition in February.

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No. 12 North Carolina

2018 Record: 7-7 (1-3 ACC)
Coach: Joe Breschi (11th year)
All-Time Record: 494-303-2
NCAA Appearances: 32
Final Fours: 13
Championships: 5

As the season slowly slipped away in 2018, punctuated by a seven-game losing streak that doomed the Tar Heels to miss the NCAA tournament for the first time since Joe Breschi returned to resuscitate his alma mater’s ailing program a decade earlier, North Carolina’s head coach was sure of one thing. His way of doing things had to change.

“When it’s not working the way you want, you’ve got to look in the mirror and ask yourself what you can you do to get better,” Breschi said. “We’ve been average [lately]. I had to take a good look at how I was leading.”

So Breschi, seeking a dose of toughness for the program, hired eight-year Hofstra assistant Kevin Unterstein to coach the Carolina defense. Unterstein, who plays professionally, was part of Team USA’s gold-medal performance at last summer’s FIL World Championship in Israel.

The Tar Heels also added a new strength and conditioning coach (Erik Hernandez) and a nutritionist (Rachel Manor). Dr. Bradley Hack, a sports psychologist, has worked with the team for several years. The Tar Heels already have highly-regarded offensive coordinator David Metzbower.

Breschi said he also decided to rectify a mistake he can trace to Carolina’s slippage two seasons ago, the first of back-to-back .500 finishes. That followed the Tar Heels’ late-season turnaround in 2016 that resulted in the school’s fifth NCAA title and first in a quarter-century.

Last year, he said, “I caught myself doing too much at both ends of the field [offense and defense], with my hands in all the cookie jars. It turns out I wasn’t doing anything great. As a result, I wasn’t helping the team enough.”

After a successful fall that featured victories over High Point and Ohio State in which the Tar Heels scored a combined 32 goals, Breschi says he enjoyed stepping back — watching film with his coordinators and letting them lead, working on special teams, concentrating on one-on-one relationships with players and being more of a field general at practice.

Breschi, who recently inked a five-year contract extension, said he saw a promising freshman class integrate well with the team’s experienced players. He saw a defense feeding off of Unterstein’s upbeat, intense style. He saw an offense regaining its shooting touch and damaged confidence. He saw the Tar Heels turning a page, preparing to play fast and loose in 2019.






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The Case For North Carolina

With the dawning of the shot clock era, the Tar Heels will assume the identity that has defined them for most of the Breschi era – a team looking to score in bunches and get into the teens regularly. Last year, that didn’t happen enough, as numerous Tar Heels endured shooting slumps, faceoff man Charles Kelly’s shoulder problems hurt Carolina’s possession time and its goalies had trouble stopping shots. Kelly is back and healthy, with talented freshman FOGO Zach Tucci pushing him hard. The returning junior midfield of Justin Anderson, William Perry (22G) and Tanner Cook (17G) looks rejuvenated. Timmy Kelly (21G) and Andy Matthews (8G, 26A) lead the attack.

The Case Against North Carolina

Two years ago, the Tar Heels followed their surprising NCAA title run with an 8-8 finish, punctuated by a quick exit from the big tournament and an offense that slipped to 18th in scoring after residing in the top five or on the cusp of it for a number of years. One wondered if that was a blip. Last year, Carolina slid further, with a lot of youth and offensive futility. During a defining 1-5 stretch in March, the Tar Heels reached 10 goals twice (both losses), averaging eight goals. Carolina finished ranked 27th in scoring (10.93) and shooting percentage (30.8). “We were a confident group at the beginning of the season. When you’re young, confidence is a fragile thing,” Breschi said.

Path to the Playoffs

The Tar Heels once again will have numerous chances to score RPI and strength-of-schedule points in their nonconference schedule, especially against the likes of Johns Hopkins, Denver and Maryland. Last year, Carolina narrowly avoided bad losses to Furman and St. John’s during their 6-0 start, which in hindsight was a sign of things to come. The Tar Heels need to tighten up there. But the five-team Atlantic Coast Conference ultimately will prove how much Carolina has improved. Their three ACC losses were by a total of five goals, but those losses were enough to knock the Tar Heels out of the conference tournament that no longer yields an automatic bid.

Players To Watch

Justin Anderson, M, Jr.
10G, 9A

Anderson is a co-captain this year, and Breschi says his game has improved as his leadership ability has developed. Anderson, who took just 37 shots in 2018, needs to assert himself more. “He’s really developed his game,” Breschi said. “He can dodge a pole and shoot lefty or righty. He’s not letting bad shots affect him.”

Andy Matthews, A, Sr.
8G, 26A, 28 GB

Matthews was more than willing to pass up a split dodge or an open shot last year, preferring to move the ball to others. He took only 17 shots. Breschi needs Matthew to be less willing to defer with the ball in his stick. “You have to be a threat to dodge and create on your own,” Breschi said.

Jack Pezzula, G, Jr.
10.66 GAA, 43.9 SV%

Like numerous Tar Heels, Pezzula started decently enough in 2018. But a crisis of confidence ensued in March, after Pezzula stopped only one shot in a loss at Richmond and one shot in a home loss against Denver. Pezzula once again has the edge over senior Alex Bassill (11.03 GAA) after a solid fall.

National Rankings

Category

Rank

Value

Offense 27th 10.93 GPG
Defense 46th 10.93 GAA
Faceoffs 53rd 44.1 FO%
Ground Balls 46th 26.29/game
Caused TO 58th 5.5/game
Shooting 27th 30.8%
Man-Up 8th 47.7%
Man-Down 20th 69.8%
Assists 33rd 5.93/game
Turnovers 3rd 10.64/game
Clearing 35th 87.4%

Power Ratings (Scale of 1-5)

Offense
⭐⭐⭐

Defense
⭐⭐⭐

Goalkeeping
⭐⭐⭐

Faceoff
⭐⭐⭐⭐

9.1

The Tar Heels’ scoring average over their final eight games, during which Carolina went 1-7. During its 6-0 start, when it had a healthy Charles Kelly facing off and was playing its share of more beatable opponents, Carolina averaged 13.3 scores. If the Tar Heels can’t regularly score in the teens with a shot clock, trouble lies ahead.

5-Year Trend
Scoring Offense

Year

Rank

GPG

2014 4th 13.00
2015 3rd 14.35
2016 6th 13.06
2017 18th 11.50
2018 27th 10.93

Coach Confidential
Joe Breschi

“We have to play good defense,” said Breschi, who loves the rapid progress made by 6-foot-3, 210-pound freshman defenseman Will Bowen, who will start with senior defensemen Jack Rowlett and Michael Nathan and senior LSM Jack Halpert. “We want to capitalize on our transition game, run whenever we can and play as fast as we can.”

Enemy Lines

“The team struggled to identify its defensive philosophy last year. They found success with a zone defense for a while and then reverted back to man-to-man. What is their identity in the defensive end? I’m concerned with the shot clock. Do they start playing faster and 10-man riding? With the athletes they have down there, that could be unleashing the thoroughbreds.”

“Looking at probably the greatest turnaround of the top teams in a long time. They’re going to be great. With the change in defensive culture with Kevin Unterstein, they are going to be much improved just with the change of philosophy.”

“A lot of guys back. Very talented. They should be a veteran group on the offensive end, for sure. I think if they can shore up the faceoff and goalie thing, they’re going to be a bear. Last year, they weren’t settled in those two positions.”

 

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