Face-Off Classic features top matchups

March means we are separating the contenders from the pretenders. This weekend features crucial games across the landscape of college lacrosse. Fans in Baltimore get a tripleheader at the Konica Minolta Face-Off Classic at M&T Bank Stadium.

No. 10 North Carolina at No. 7 Princeton

Watch: Friday at 7 p.m. ET on ESPNU
This is a pivotal game involving top-10 teams. Carolina beat No. 13 Penn on Tuesday, and Princeton has momentum after holding No. 17 Johns Hopkins to three goals.

"Great goalie play is critical," UNC coach Joe Breschi said. "We have to get ground balls in our defensive end and limit their second-chance opportunities. On offense, we have to be able to handle their on-ball pressure and attack their hedge slides."

The faceoff battle is the X factor. Princeton sends out sophomore Jeff Froccaro, while the Heels counter with R.G. Keenan, a freshman who has put up gaudy numbers.

How do the baby Tar Heels midfielders handle life on the road, and can they find ways to score on Tigers goalie Tyler Fiorito?

No. 12 Loyola at No. 15 Duke

Friday at 7 p.m. ET
The Greyhounds own wins over unranked Towson, Navy and Bellarmine by a combined five goals, and have struggled to find the net. They prefer a pedestrian pace. Duke must score in transition, get saves from Dan Wigrizer and get faceoff wins from CJ Costabile. But a year ago, the Greyhounds' John Schiavone won 13 of 17 faceoffs. Loyola's defense has been superb in settled situations, allowing only 5.3 goals against.

No. 1 Syracuse vs. No. 20 Georgetown

Watch: Saturday at 11 a.m. ET on ESPNU
The Orange are ripe after an emotional win over Virginia in the Carrier Dome. Syracuse senior Stephen Keogh (105 career goals) sported a Mohawk haircut for the Virginia game. I spoke with him Tuesday on the ESPNU podcast, and he's going to shave it bald prior to facing Georgetown in Baltimore. The Hoyas forgot to cover the Canadian sniper last year in a five-goal outbreak.

"My man slid to the ball carrier, and I was wide open," Keough said. He is automatic from in close, relying on slick stick fakes and pinpoint placement. His senior class is 48-6 and sports two NCAA title rings.

The Hoyas are the poster child for bad defense in 2011, allowing 57 goals in four games. "Dan Hostetler and Bobby Boyle have a class on Tuesday, and they miss practice. We are looking into solutions. It impacts our preparation," coach Dave Urick said.

Georgetown must be respected; it has firepower. "We're going to do what we do best, but you roll the dice against Syracuse in a track meet," Urick said. This Big East battle might break the scoreboard.

No. 8 Maryland at Towson

Watch: Saturday at noon ET on ESPN3.com
How will Maryland attack Towson's zone defense? It's a Tigers unit performing miracles in front of goalie Travis Love (.667), who leads the nation in save percentage. ESPNU analyst Mark Dixon, who will be covering the game and has seen Towson play twice, said, "Maryland has to spread them out, move shooters Grant Catalino and Travis Reed around."

"The Terps must feature lots of motion and cuts, and skip the ball from wing to wing. They have to get the ball inside," he said.

Eventually they will crack the code. Utilizing a zone defense in lacrosse is slow death. As a changeup, I love it. Syracuse in 2004 and Virginia in 2003 mixed it in perfectly with their base man-to-man scheme. But it has been proven that in the modern era, no team has won an NCAA title while playing exclusively zone defense.

No. 16 Ohio State at Albany

Saturday at noon ET
This matchup features two middle-of-the-road teams -- the winner takes a huge step forward, and the loser joins the peleton of wannabes ranked between No. 15 and No. 30. Albany upset previously undefeated No. 5 UMass on Tuesday behind 17 saves from Edmund Cathers. The Great Danes are fun to watch because they don't hold back and push the tempo. The Buckeyes have beaten UNC and Penn State but don't score at a rapid pace.

No. 2 Virginia vs. No. 9 Cornell

Watch: Saturday at 1:30 p.m. ET on ESPNU
I asked Virginia coach Dom Starsia what a defensive focal point will be against Cornell during the second game of the Face-Off Classic. "How we manage the Rob Pannell matchup," he said, referring to the junior attack man who averages 6.0 points per game and will be covered by Matt Lovejoy. "Do we slide or not slide? Do we press out adjacent or drop into the inside passing lanes, inviting the 14-yard step down shots?" Pannell had six assists Wednesday in a win over Canisius.

Virginia player of the year candidate Shamel Bratton has been on fire, scoring 11 goals in his past two outings. Starsia sees his star maturing, saying he's watching more film and putting the ball on cage.

Shamel and his talented twin, Rhamel, have scored a combined 129 career goals for the Cavaliers. And oddly, they have assisted each other only three times. They are a thrill to watch.

Rookie Cornell coach Ben Deluca is battling injuries to three starters -- Steve Mock, Max Feely and David Lau -- and isn't preparing to have them in uniform. So the margin of victory appears slim for Cornell. Goalie A.J. Fiore must snap out of his early season slump (.467). But never count the Big Red out; they exemplify the best qualities in the lacrosse.

UMBC vs. No. 17 Johns Hopkins

Watch: Saturday at 4 p.m. ET on ESPN3.com
If the final game at M&T Bank Statdium plays to script, Hopkins will fend off a feisty UMBC team and prevail late, capitalizing on a UMBC defense that surrenders 11.67 goals per game and makes only 43 percent of the saves.

But what will it mean? The Blue Jays have proved they can beat everybody except the elite teams such as Syracuse, Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina and Princeton. Hopkins has lost nine of its past 10 games to top-10 opposition. Dating back to 2006, Hopkins is 16-21 against the top 10.

Ground balls have been the major theme for the past two years. The data is staggering. In their past 11 wins, the Jays have a plus-6.2 advantage in ground ball margin but a whopping minus-9.9 differential in losses. Team speed, toughness and smarts have been lacking against the big boys.

No. 3 Notre Dame at No. 14 Denver

Saturday at 9 p.m. ET
The Fighting Irish have their hands full with a slick Denver offense led by Alex Demopoulos, Mark Matthews, Cameron Flint and Todd Baxter, and a raucous DU student section. ND defensive coordinator Gerry Byrne so eloquently said, "The Canadians can disappear in a cloud of Marlboro smoke and pop out of nowhere for a dip and dunk."

Quint Kessenich covers lacrosse for ESPN and Insidelacrosse.com.