No. 1 Duke vs. No. 2 North Carolina.
Need I say more?
The Blue Devils and Tar Heels have never played against one another as the top two teams in college lacrosse, but that'll change Thursday night when the two storied programs meet at 7 p.m. at Koskinen Stadium. Both squads blitzed through their nonconference competition before securing a top-10 win to begin ACC play and swapping the top two spots in the polls, making Thursday's contest a regular-season rivalry matchup of epic proportions.
Nevertheless, Duke head coach John Danowski has worked to ensure the buzz leading up to the game doesn't distract his team.
"I think if anything, the pandemic has taught us to live one day at a time," Danowski said Tuesday. "And while carpe diem is a very old cliche, it's never been more appropriate. You just gotta live for today.... Enjoy where you're at right now, and that's really been the big thing. And the lacrosse part of it—Thursday night will come soon enough. But if we can just learn to live and enjoy each day, we're not looking past today."
Several key storylines will highlight Thursday's contest, particularly on the offensive end of the field.
North Carolina (8-0, 1-0 in the ACC) and Duke (9-0, 1-0) boast the top two offenses in the country at 18.38 and 17 goals per game, respectively, so expect a shootout. And those two offenses are led by two of the top offensive players in the country in the Tar Heels' Chris Gray and the Blue Devils' Michael Sowers.
Gray leads the country with 6.62 points per game, including a tally of 3.75 goals per contest that ranks seventh nationally and first in the ACC. The senior has obviously made his mark with the ball in his stick, but it's his off-ball movement that has allowed him to become one of the most dangerous scorers in college lacrosse.
"He's a great player," Duke senior attack man Joe Robertson said. "He's super creative on and off the ball. I think a lot of people maybe fail to see that he's really, really good off the ball, which is something that a lot of people take for granted."
However, you don't score north of 18 goals per game with only one dangerous scorer, something Danowski made sure to emphasize leading up to Thursday's bout.
"You've gotta defend all of [North Carolina's] players, because they're all capable," Danowski said. "You look at their roster, and even though some of the players, besides for Gray, maybe don't have overly impressive point totals, they're all capable. They're averaging 18 goals a game. They're the No. 1 scoring team in the country. And that's just not because of one guy."
Meanwhile, Sowers ranks 11th in the country with 5.56 points per contest, including a mark of 3.22 assists per game that places seventh nationally and second in the ACC. He's joined by Robertson and freshman Brennan O'Neill, who rank fifth and second in the conference in goals per game, respectively, in leading Duke's offensive attack.
Another key storyline will be the battle at the X.
Freshman Jake Naso was undoubtedly the catalyst of the Blue Devils' 15-14 win against No. 4 Syracuse last Thursday, winning 24-of-32 face-offs en route to US Lacrosse National Player of the Week honors. His rise from projected backup to one of the best face-off specialists in the country has been one of the biggest stories of Duke's season thus far.
"It's been a pleasure to watch, to say the least," Robertson said of Naso's growth this season. "He is a very, very humble guy, and a really, really hard-working guy, so to see his success is something that everyone on the team is happy about. And he's well-deserving of it. I think it's just been really cool to see him go up against a lot of older face-off guys, and a lot of really talented guys, and really just perform with a cold-blooded mentality and not really being thrown off his game. So for that to be coming out of a freshman this early in the year is really, really cool to see."
However, repeating those kinds of dominant face-off performances in a conference as good as the ACC is difficult, which is why Danowski also stressed the need to have depth at the position. Danowski mentioned junior Jordan Ginder, graduate transfer Dan O'Connell and senior Joe Stein as guys who could potentially see time taking face-offs Thursday.
Overall, the Blue Devils' win a week ago against the Orange was impressive enough to catapult the team back atop the rankings. However, there's no doubt that there were times Duke struggled as well, in particular a 9-1 Syracuse run that began near the end of the second quarter and extended through much of the second half that turned a 12-5 Blue Devil lead into a 14-13 Orange advantage.
Danowski and Robertson both mentioned that the team didn't have its best overall showing last Thursday, while stressing the need to stay focused for all 60 minutes.
"[North Carolina] hasn't lost a game since 2019," Danowski said. "So they're used to winning, and they're used to doing things a certain way. They believe in their coaching staff, they believe in each other, and rightfully so. And they should. And so we're gonna have to play the best we've played all year in order to be successful."
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