Johns Hopkins coach Tony Seaman says it without hesitation: "North Carolina is the best lacrosse team in the country."
It doesn't necessarily follow, however, that top-seeded North Carolina will beat No. 5 Syracuse in the semifinals of the NCAA tournament tomorrow (noon) in the Carrier Dome, before No. 7 Maryland faces No. 11 Towson State.
"If the game were on grass, it would be no contest," Seaman said. "But North Carolina isn't as good on artificial turf as it is on grass."
It was no contest in March when North Carolina defeated Syracuse, 10-3, on grass in Chapel Hill. But this game is on the Carrier Dome's rug and it is wise to remember that the Orangemen are averaging almost 19 goals a game.
"The Dome is a unique place to play, especially tough on goalies," Seaman said. "I think Carolina has the better goalie [Andy Piazza], but [Syracuse's Jerry] DeLorenzo has the experience in the Dome."
Hopkins played both teams. The Blue Jays lost to North Carolina, 11-6, and split with Syracuse, springing an upset in the Dome in March -- ending the Orangemen's 26-game winning streak there -- and bowing in the NCAA quarterfinals here.
The Tar Heels are 0-4 in the Carrier Dome. Three of the four defeats were in sudden-death overtime.
"Carolina beat Syracuse handily at Chapel Hill," Seaman said. "They have great team defense and great speed. They're by far the fastest team in the country . . . People will see offensive lacrosse at its best when these two meet."
DeLorenzo could be a key. Seaman notes that the sophomore goalie "made nine or 10 saves Sunday that he didn't make against us up there" in March. In the quarterfinals, DeLorenzo took on Hopkins ace Matt Panetta six times one-on-one and made five saves.
"That," Seaman said, "was the difference in the game."
After last Sunday's game, Syracuse coach Roy Simmons, in attempting to explain his team's early-season defeats, noted that "DeLorenzo has grown over 10 games."
And this from DeLorenzo himself at the mention of playing in the Final Four in the Dome: "We've separated the men from the boys. I love a crowd and the big time. I'm an emotional goalie."
When people say to Simmons that Syracuse is the favorite, he has a quick rejoinder: "When you're the fifth seed, how can you be the favorite? We don't get enough respect."
Countered North Carolina coach Dave Klarmann, "I consider Syracuse the favorite. But that doesn't mean we can't beat them."
As his team seeks an unprecedented fourth straight NCAA title, Simmons takes pains to point out that he has "never sat in the stands in the Dome and watched a lacrosse game." He adds that "it would be a bit embarrassing" to host the Final Four and not be in it.
And if Syracuse loses to North Carolina, would Simmons show up as a spectator for Monday's final? He is not prepared to answer that one right now.