Absurdly early 2010 lookahead: Nos. 1-5

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Might as well get an important piece of business done before the weekend as well: Finishing off the absurdly early lookahead to next spring.

What’s left on the list are five of this year’s quarterfinalists, all of which will go into next season with their own set of high expectations. For some, like the defending national champions from Syracuse, it will be because there’s always expectations.

For others, like North Carolina, it will be because of the giddiness of having the talent and coaches to finally bring the program back to the final four.

Yes, it’s premature. But here’s guessing next year’s final four comes from these five teams:

5. Princeton (13-3 in 2009): The Tigers aren’t officially back, not until they return to the final four. They had a chance with a superb midfielder (Mark Kovler) and lot of talent on defense this past season. It didn’t happen.

There are few players nationally who will be missed as much as Kovler (the list starts with Cornell’s Max Seibald, and also includes Syracuse’s Sid Smith before the arguments really begin). The fact is Kovler took a lot of pressure off some younger offensive options.

The Tigers will also be down some defensive midfielders, but they are almost always a sound bunch at that end of the field and Tyler Fiorito enjoyed a strong freshman season. There’s more parity than ever in the Ivy League, but Princeton could be poised to return to the top of its conference – and if things break really well, the rankings, too.

4. Virginia (15-3): The Cavaliers lose quite a bit, but don’t look for them to fall far – at least when the entirety of 2010 is taken into account.

Virginia might well start next season as about the 10th-best team in the country. But there’s oodles of talent, and a midfield with the potential to be truly frightening. If the Cavaliers’ growing pains don’t last much beyond Syracuse’s early March trip to Charlottesville, Virginia will be fine and remain in the national title discussion for most of the spring.

Things might not turn out so smoothly. But the Cavaliers are run well and do not face a talent deficiency. Things should be fine for Dom Starsia’s team, even if they won’t be the flat-out favorites this season.

3. North Carolina (12-6): After going MIA on the national stage for 15 years, the Tar Heels are poised to be back next year.

Not back in the way of a quarterfinal appearance; Carolina did that in 2004, 2007 and 2009, and with all respect, those seasons don’t quite stack up to the program’s legacy of the 1980s (and early 1990s).

But Carolina has made some smart moves over the last few years. It hired the right coach (Joe Breschi) and has the right player to build its offense around (Billy Bitter). It sloughed off a five-year losing streak against ACC opponents, and nearly punched through to the final four.

Everything is in place for the Tar Heels to re-emerge as a power. Time has run out on treating Carolina like a punching bag, and the ACC could well have a different look in the years to come now that a revival is clearly underway in Chapel Hill. Look for another step in that resurgence in 2010.

2. Syracuse (16-2): Without question, the Orange lost a lot.

They lost Kenny Nims on attack, Sid Smith on defense and a gaggle of midfielders (Matt Abbott, Dan Hardy and Pat Perritt, to start with) from back-to-back national champions.

But c’mon, folks. This is Syracuse, the closest thing college lacrosse has to a professional program. Ignore those blights in 2005 and 2007 and chalk them up to a short-term derailment, because the reality is Syracuse simply reloads. Over and over and over again.

The Orange will be there on Memorial Day weekend, because that’s their place. It’ll be hard to collect the three-peat – other teams have some talent, too – but Syracuse isn’t going away, even if the Orange will be much like Cornell in searching for midfield answers in the early portion of the season.

There’s enough talent at attack, a capable defense and a two-year starter in goal (John Galloway) to ensure the Orange will be a top-five fixture. They won’t be perfect, and might not initially be all that pretty. But they’ll be there in the end.

Just like they usually are.

1. Duke (15-4): The fifth-year brigade brings the Blue Devils another fine collection and well-aged talent next year, star attackman Ned Crotty among that group.

Realistically, Duke is taking a major loss to its midfield (Brad Ross) and its close defense (Ryan McFadyen). Those are the major hits – good players to be sure, but not exactly the sort of guys who get awards named after them.

So Duke 2010 is basically going to be Duke 2008 Lite, a near total return of talent from the previous year that will possess the ability to make a push deep into the NCAA tournament.

Obviously, the window that narrowed with the departures of Matt Danowski and Zack Greer after last season didn’t close entirely. And with the other three semifinalists absorbing substantial losses, Duke has to be considered the very early favorite to win it all next May 31.

Yes, next Memorial Day is more than a year away. And obviously Duke’s performance on this particular weekend has left a bit to be desired the last few seasons. But just assessing things on paper, it’s hard to see how the Blue Devils wouldn’t begin next year at No. 1.

Whether they (or anyone else in this top 20 and beyond) finishes where it appears they should start is another matter entirely – and one to be revisited several months down the road.

Previously: Nos. 6-10, Nos. 11-15, Nos. 16-20

Patrick Stevens

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