NCAA Final Four Preview and Predictions: Will Duke vs. Virginia Decide the Champion?
Final Four weekend kicks off at Baltimore’s M&T Bank Stadium at 4 p.m. Saturday as Notre Dame and Cornell get the action started, followed by Duke and Virginia at 6:30. This is the first year that the games have been moved back from noon and 2:30 p.m., in hopes that more fans will get to watch the more prime time slots. The championship game will be played Monday at 3:30 p.m. According to weather.com, the weather will be sunny and in the mid-70’s all weekend. Everything’s shaping up perfectly. I’ll be blogging my weekend trip to Baltimore, but until then, here’s our preview for the semi-finals and championship games. Leave your thoughts and predictions in the comments.
Notre Dame vs. Cornell
Saturday, 4 p.m., ESPN2
This game features two teams who like to possess the ball and rely on their defense. You can expect a chess match-style game, with both teams having less than 10 goals. Coach Kevin Corrigan has lead the Irish (9-6) to the program’s second ever Final Four, while coach Jeff Tambroni and Cornell (12-5) are making their third semi-finals appearance in the last four years.
Just like in the first two rounds, Notre Dame will rely on goalie Scott Rodgers and face-off man Trevor Sipperly. Rodgers only let in five goals in the opening two rounds of the tournament so far. He’ll need to be big again for the Irish to make it to Monday’s championship game. On defense, Kevin Ridgeway, Kevin Randall, and Mike Creighton will need to force Cornell to take shots from poor angles and allow Rodgers to make saves. The Irish’s offense has been led by their first midfield line of Grant Krebs, Zach Brenneman, and David Earl, but other players have been able to step up in games in which the first midfield struggled.
The Big Red’s offense starts with Rob Panell and Ryan Hurley. Cornell will need to get shots from less than 10 yards and from good angles to get the ball past the big frame of Scott Rodgers. At the face-off X, Austin Boykin will need to win draws and make sure Cornell gets extra possessions, especially with how important each possession will be Saturday. Look for wingman Pierce Derkac to help him win a few, too. Cornell has a very young defense — with two freshman poles (Mike Bronzino and Jason Noble). Don’t forget, goalie A.J. Fiore is a freshman, as well. Cornell may try to double pole ND’s first-line midfielders, or try running a zone against the Irish.
Prediction: Notre Dame is thriving in the underdog role this year and is out to prove that they do belong in the tournament. Cornell has struggled to close games all year long and it will be difficult to score on the Irish defense. In this type of game, I like the Irish to move on to Monday’s championship.
Duke vs. Virginia
Saturday, 6:30 p.m., ESPN2
In stark contrast to the Notre Dame/Cornell game, the nightcap will be much more up-tempo and high scoring, and should be a real treat for the fans. Duke (14-4) has scored 35 goals in two tournament games, while Virginia (16-1) has scored 28. Both teams have the ability to be in the double digits by half time.
Duke will be led by Max Quinzani and Ned Crotty on Attack. So far in the tournament, no one has been able to stop them. Virginia will try to shut down Duke’s big players, while Duke will try to eliminate Virginia’s big names on offense. The role players for each team may end up being the difference makers on Saturday. On defense, the big question remains: who will start in goal? Face-offs will be important and each team has three guys they can rotate at the X. That could be a potential chess match on which face-off men will go out against whom. Duke’s wingmen have also been good on draws lately.
The Cavaliers will need improvement in their wing play from the Stony Brook game, or Duke will win a majority of the draws. The Brattons will need to be big at the midfield, as both the play of the defensive midfielders could be a key component in deciding which team comes out on top. On defense, Virginia will try to avoid having to make slides so the 1-on-1 match-ups against Duke’s attack will be very important, as well. How will Virginia react to the pressure of the big stage in Baltimore?
Prediction: Duke has been tearing team’s apart with their offense in the tournament. They’re very hot right now and I see them edging Virginia in a close game.
Division I Championship
Notre Dame/Cornell winner vs. Duke/Virginia winner
Monday, 3:30 p.m., ESPN2
No matter who plays in the championship, one team will be defensive-minded and their opponent will be all about offense: a classic O vs. D battle.
Prediction: If my Final Four predictions are correct, the game will feature Notre Dame vs. Duke. Duke has been here before and Notre Dame hasn’t. Plus, Duke will be looking to avenge their February loss to the Irish. I don’t see ND being able to slow down Duke’s offense enough and I like the Blue Devils to take home the championship trophy.
No matter who comes out of the semi-finals, I don’t think Cornell or Notre Dame’s defense will be able to contain Duke or Virginia’s offense, and whoever wins between Duke and Virginia should also be the winner in the championship game.
Division II Championship
C.W. Post vs. LeMoyne
Sunday, 3 p.m., CBS College Sports
Prediction: C.W. Post
Division III Championship
Tufts vs. Salisbury
Sunday, 12 p.m., CBS College Sports