2023 NCAA Tournament Preview: Top Half

(Photo Courtesy of Duke Athletics)

The NCAA Tournament bracket is set and the fight to be the final team standing on Memorial Day gets underway on Saturday at high noon.

Each half (top and bottom) of the bracket will see two teams advance to Championship Weekend in Philadelphia, Pa. This year, the road to Championship Weekend will run through Annapolis, Md., and Albany, N.Y.

The top half of the bracket features the top-seeded Duke Blue Devils, who are among the group that has stood out ahead of the rest this season. Additionally, this half of the bracket may be the most tightly contested and intriguing overall.

You can view the full NCAA Bracket (printable) here.

Here’s a look at some storylines and superlatives for the top half of the bracket:

National Title Favorite

Is there a clear-cut favorite at all this year? Many would say no. But with Duke being the No. 1 overall seed they are among the expected to be playing on Memorial Day weekend. The Blue Devils enter the tournament with a 13-2 record with its only two losses coming against Jacksonville and Notre Dame. Duke will be looking to advance to Memorial Day weekend for the 12th time under John Danowski and win the program’s first title since 2014.

Duke is headlined by a top-tier offense with Brennan O’Neill at the head of it and has as solid and consistent of a faceoff man as any could want in Jake Naso. Where the Blue Devils have made the most headway and arguably turned the most heads this season is on defense. In 2022, Duke allowed  11.18 goals per game (11.83 vs ACC teams) as the 26th-best scoring defense. This season, however, the Blue Devils are allowing 10.67 goals per game as the 16th-best scoring defense in DI. The duo of Wilson Stephenson and Kenny Brower has improved considerably and William Helm (51% save percentage) has been a solid addition in cage.

Best First-Round Game

As is often the case, this question could garner a myriad of answers and none would necessarily be wrong. And especially so this year. The one I will go with for this spot is the game that I am personally most excited to see during this entire first round: No. 4 Maryland vs Army West Point. No. 5 Penn State vs Princeton was a close second.

The defending national champion Maryland Terrapins will welcome the Patriot League champion Army Black Knights to College Park on Saturday at 7:30pm for a battle under the lights. Army is a team many didn’t predict to be here in the preseason after all they lost from a season ago. Maryland also lost a lot from last season and especially so on offense, but it was less of a concern in many respects. The two storylines to watch in this game are the Army defense vs the Maryland offense and the battle at the faceoff dot. Army has the No. 2 scoring defense (8.67 goals allowed per game) with Knox Dent anchoring things in cage and AJ Pilate leading the way out in front. It’ll be interesting to see how they handle a Maryland offense that has gotten better as the year has gone on and seeds Braden Erska as a primary leader as the freshman has really settled in through the back half of the year. At the faceoff dot, it will be Maryland’s Luke Wierman (61.4%, 11th in DI) versus Army’s Will Coletti (62.3%, 8th in DI) goin up against each other.

Best Potential Matchup

This is an extremely tough one. I am going to go with Duke-Cornell in the quarterfinals but you could easily pick Penn State-Maryland in the quarterfinals or any of the matchups that could be in the semifinals.

Duke has the fourth best scoring offense in college lacrosse, averaging 15.33 goals per game and is led by Brennan O’Neill. Cornell has the sixth best scoring offense in college lacrosse, averaging 14.86 goals per game and is led by CJ Kirst. Both O’Neill and Kirst are among the top offensive playmakers in the game and having them on the same field would be one heck of a battle. How would each defense respond and react to the opposing offense? Would we see a tug of war from start to finish or would one side be able to break away? If so, how soon? There are so many angles at which you could look at a potential Duke-Cornell matchup that would make it such and interesting battle should it take place.

Underdog to Watch

Michigan pulled a string of upsets last week to win the Big Ten and clinch the program’s first berth in the NCAA Tournament. The Wolverines now travel to Ithaca where they will be looking to pull off another upset versus the Cornell Big Red. One of the hallmarks of this Michigan team in 2023 has been its offense. Under the guise of new offensive coordinator Scott Bieda, this unit has thrived with attackmen Michael Boehm, Josh Zawada, and Ryan Cohen, among others at the helm of this unit. It is almost as if another level has been unlocked with this Michigan offense this spring. The duo of Justin Wietfeldt and Nick Rowlett has been deadly at the faceoff dot and provided this team with a lynchpin in the middle of the field. Wietfeldt ranks first nationally in faceoff win percentage (66%). Rowlett ranks 18th (57%).

One Player From Each Team You Need to Know

Brennan O’Neill, Attack, Duke: O’Neill leads the Blue Devils with 80 points off 44 goals and 26 assists.

Owen Grant, Defense, Delaware: Leading the Delaware defense, Grant has been a massive impact. He has grabbed 54 ground balls, caused 36 turnovers, scored seven goals, and assisted on two others.

CJ Kirst, Attack, Cornell: Kirst leads the Big Red with 82 points off 63 goals and 19 assists.

Justin Wietfeldt, Faceoff, Michigan: Wietfeld leads the nation in faceoff win percentage as he has gone 130-for-197 (66%) this season.

Jack Fracyon, Goalie, Penn State: Fracyon ranks second in save percentage with 183 saves and a 57% save percentage this season.

Coulter Mackesy, Goalie, Princeton: Mackesy has emerged as Princeton’s top scorer this season with 72 points off 49 goals and 23 assists.

Brian Ruppel, Goalie, Maryland: Thrust into the starting goalie role after the injury to Logan McNaney, the freshman has made 133 saves with a 51% save percentage thus far.

AJ Pilate, Defense, Army: Pilate has continued to be a top pole for Army after a stellar freshman campaign last spring. He has recorded 17 caused turnovers and 32 ground balls as a sophomore in 2023.


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