The inaugural season of Big Ten men’s lacrosse has already offered plenty of storylines, and a young Michigan team hopes it can continue to grab the headlines heading into the conference season.
Through eight non-conference games, the Wolverines own a .500 record, and are only one victory shy of tying the program record of five wins, set last year.
That last win, though, could be the toughest yet for Michigan. Last season, the Wolverines went winless in four games against their new conference foes, getting outscored by a combined total of 64-23. In this year’s preseason Big Ten coaches poll, Michigan was picked to finish last in the conference.
Just the top four teams in the conference qualify for the Big Ten Tournament, and the Wolverines have made it a team expectation to make the short list for the tournament’s first run.
Keeping Michigan’s goal in mind, the Daily breaks down the Wolverines’ chances of making the tournament by picking apart the conference schedule team by team:
No. 3 Maryland (7-1)
Michigan will have its toughest challenge right from the start when it travels to College Park to take on the third-ranked Terrapins on March 29. Despite graduating four All-Americans, Maryland barely skipped a beat through its non-conference schedule.
With wins over five ranked teams, including No. 2 North Carolina, the Terrapins have propelled themselves in the conversation to win a national title, and are almost unanimously considered the favorite in the Big Ten.
Defense drives this physically tough Terrapin team, as it gives up just five goals per game, by far the fewest in the country. In order to pull off the massive upset, the Wolverines will have to take advantage of every possession they get, and may want to consider speeding up a low-tempo Maryland attack.
Player to watch: Junior goalie Kyle Bernlohr
Behind Maryland’s stout defense is one of the nation’s best goalies in front of net. Bernlohr owns the country’s best save percentage and the lowest goals-against average at .685 and 4.64, respectively. Michigan will have a hard enough time unlocking the Terrapins’ defense, and with Bernlohr in net, the difficulty of scoring at all only skyrockets.
The first conference home game for Michigan will be a virtual must-win if the Wolverines want to finish top-four. The Scarlet Knights don’t boast any high-quality non-conference wins, but they have taken No. 9 Army and No. 10 Princeton down to the wire, losing both games by two goals or less.
The key to victory will likely be taking smart shots for Michigan. Rutgers owns the fourth-best faceoff win percentage in the country, likely limiting Michigan’s possessions.
Junior faceoff man Brad Lott and the rest of the Wolverines’ specialists will have to step up for Michigan to win draws, and possessions will be limited, making smart shot choices a key to victory.
Player to watch: Senior midfielder Joe Nardella
The Scarlet Knights’ primary faceoff man owns a staggering .695 win percentage off the draw, good for third nationally. Nardella not only is a threat at the faceoff X, but is also dangerous immediately after. He has already tallied 10 points this season off the draw.
No. 15 Ohio State (7-3)
After losing their opening game to Detroit, the Buckeyes have heated up and boast two quality non-conference wins over No. 3 Denver and No. 16 Towson, which have propelled them ahead in the national rankings.
Still, Ohio State also has its share of less than glorious results, especially against opponents the Wolverines have played. The Buckeyes were shut out last Saturday against Notre Dame, escaped Bellarmine with a one-point victory and fell in a low-scoring game to Detroit. In games against these three common opponents, Michigan has outscored Ohio State 39-16.
Similar to Maryland, the Buckeyes play with a defensive mentality, ranking fifth in the country conceding an average of just 7.40 goals per game. Michigan currently leads the conference in man-up scoring opportunities, but Ohio State will bring the No. 1 man-down defense to Ann Arbor.
Player to watch: Senior midfielder Jesse King
Widely considered the best individual talent in the Big Ten, King can play just about anywhere for the Buckeyes. Earning preseason All-American honors, he leads Ohio State in nearly every offensive category, including scoring 21 goals through 10 games. However, King’s teammates have had trouble finding him, as the Buckeyes rank 39th nationally in assists per game.
No. 20 Johns Hopkins (3-5)
Don’t be deceived by the Blue Jays’ sub-.500 record, because they are easily the Big Ten’s second-best team. The non-conference schedule has been rough for Johns Hopkins, as it has dropped games against ranked Towson, North Carolina, Princeton, Syracuse and Virginia all by three goals or less.
The Blue Jays are currently on the outside looking in on the 18-team NCAA Tournament, and may need to win the Big Ten’s automatic bid in order to make the field.
With Michigan matching up with Johns Hopkins late in the season, the Blue Jays could be very desperate for any win to improve their Big Ten Tournament seed and NCAA resume. The matchup with the Blue Jays has the potential to be a shootout, especially with tournament berths on the line for both teams.
Player to watch: Junior attacker Ryan Brown
With an average of three goals per game, Brown current ranks first in Big Ten individual scoring. Brown is considered one of the top sharpshooters in the country and will be a handful for the Michigan defense and redshirt sophomore goalie Gerald Logan.
Penn State (3-5)
Once a top-20 team, the Nittany Lions have dropped several winnable non-conference games, ousting them from the national picture. Despite its worst loss being by four goals, Penn State has struggled at closing games, and its offense hasn’t scored in critical moments.
Penn State has struggled mightily on the road, going 1-5 in away and neutral-site games. Michigan’s senior day and final regular season game will surely be a must-win for the Wolverines, who will hope the Nittany Lions’ road woes continue.
Penn State touts an athletic midfield that should match up well with the Wolverines. Sophomore midfielder Mikie Schlosser could be the player Michigan needs to step up to ensure a senior day victory and a possible fourth-place finish, or better, in the Big Ten.
Player to watch: Redshirt sophomore midfielder Drake Kreinz
Kreinz ranks 13th nationally with a .600 faceoff win percentage, and will be another specialist sure to challenge Lott at the faceoff X. Similar to Rutger’s Nardella, Kreinz poses the threat of scoring right off the draw. Michigan will need to contain him on the faceoff in what should be a tightly contested regular-season finale.