CHARLOTTESVILLE – College lacrosse added a shot clock to the men’s game this season, an attempt to speed up and open up the offensive side.
Virginia’s response to the 80-second shot clock? It’s actually slowed down its tempo.
“There’s no doubt about it that our first couple of years we were too fast,” senior captain Ryan Conrad said this week. “We were just going and trying to score 1,000 goals.”
That was the offensive philosophy former Brown coach Lars Tiffany brought with him when he took over UVA’s program before the 2017 season. He installed an aggressive, up-tempo offensive system his players then described as “fast and fun.”
Three years later, Tiffany has slowed down the Cavaliers’ attack because, after all, the only thing more fun than scoring is winning.
“We tempered our tempo,” said Tiffany, as he prepared his team for its NCAA tournament first-round match against Robert Morris on Saturday. “The shot clock has actually slowed us down.”
By no means is Virginia (13-3) slow. In fact, the Cavaliers are averaging 44.5 shots, over five more per contest than last season and just under two shots fewer than Tiffany’s first year.
UVA scores 14 goals per game, tied for sixth most in the nation going into the weekend tussle with Robert Morris, which ranks 12th in that category (13.7).
“We both like to play a pretty exciting brand of ball,” said Colonials coach Andrew McMinn. “Those guys put up a significant amount of points all year.”
Tiffany and his players said they’re just doing it a bit more methodically now, attacking aggressively if opportunities present themselves early in the shot clock, then turning a bit more selective in the middle of possessions.
What’s a good shot with 15 seconds left might not be a good shot with 55 seconds still on the clock.
“This is an incredibly fortuitous opportunity for our team to now guide our decision making using a metric – the shot clock – as a tool to assess when we’re taking shots,” Tiffany said. “There are two of them on the field. They tell you how much time you have. Let’s use it to our advantage.”
Tiffany spent 10 years coaching at Brown, his alma mater, leading one of the nation’s most prolific and uptempo offensive attacks. His 2016 club led the nation in scoring, putting up 16.2 goals per match.
Along the way, the system produced four Ivy League regular-season championships and three NCAA appearances.
So when he was tapped to take over at UVA for his former coach, Dom Starsia, Tiffany changed very little in his strategy.
But this season, the new shot clock rule forced him to adjust his approach.
“It’s been the best thing that we could do,” he said. “Probably inappropriately, our coaching staff, we came in that first year and said we’re going to play just like we coached the men at Brown. We wanted to almost use that first year as a proving ground that that system can work anywhere. Well, it didn’t work the way we hoped.”
Instead, the high-scoring Cavaliers went 8-7 that season, were winless in ACC play, and missed the NCAA tournament. Fast forward to Saturday, and they’re the No. 3 national seed in the draw, looking to snap a four-game losing streak in NCAA tournament play and win their first NCAA match since 2012.
It’s not lost on Tiffany the similarity to the core philosophies of Virginia’s latest national championship team – the men’s basketball program. Tony Bennett’s team prides itself on deliberate and efficient offense, often using most of the sport’s 30-second shot clock.
“They don’t come down and take the first shot,” Tiffany said. “They do a really good job of understanding where they are in the shot clock, squeezing a few more seconds off it, then hitting a shot. Now, obviously it helps when Jerome’s hitting 3-pointers from 25 feet with 2 seconds left on the shot clock, but we do have Dox Aitken and he can do that, too.”
Tiffany has a roster loaded with talented scorers. Curtailing their natural instincts to attack has been part of the challenge of the new approach this season. Players like Conrad and sophomore attackman Matt Moore struggled at first with the philosophical shift from dashing to disciplined.
“As a coaching staff, sometimes we’re pulling the reins in a little bit,” Tiffany said. “Those two, they do not need the jockey with the proverbial whip to get going any faster.”
The pair, like the rest of the offense, have had lapses at times, but for the most part, they’ve bought into the new approach while remaining ultra-productive. The Cavaliers have four players with more than 30 goals this season – Ian Laviano (41), Aitken (36), Moore (36) and Michael Kraus (31).
“You’ve kind of got to trust the system,” Moore said. “It’s worked out so far. But it is hard. You see that cutting d-middie and he’s wide open but it’s not the smartest play. I’ve definitely learned over this year when I need to pull back.”
And that’s helped UVA lacrosse move forward.