I'd've liked to be previewing a Duke game in this space here, but we can't have everything. Instead, we'll just have to do a retrospective of the season to try and figure out what went down and why.
Certainly it wasn't up to the usual standards. It wasn't a total disaster, either; 2013 was a total disaster, but when you can register wins over Syracuse, Hopkins, and UNC, well, some measure of dignity has been salvaged. Even if you also register losses to two of them.
I think first let's cover what went well. It's not that short of a list, even if you're still steamed about the "first loss in the first round of the tournament since 2007" - according to the official website, which is sort of a dubious salvage-brag when you probably would've broken that streak last year had you even had the chance.
-- Offensive midfield play. Not too surprisingly, UVA found its share of mismatches with its midfielders. Ryan Tucker contributed 24 goals and basically can't be left alone because of the cannon he possesses. Greg Coholan was a nice surprise with 13 goals and 14 assists, several (including the Hopkins OT winner) in clutch situations. We didn't see the kind of really dynamic and dominant midfield play on offense that we've seen in the past, but it was good enough to win with.
-- Pannell and Cockerton. James Pannell showed why he was so hyped up and Mark Cockerton turned in a second straight 40-goal season. And, living up to the expectations of a senior, Cockerton was second on the team in assists with 16, displaying the ability to find teammates when defenses converged on him and made him the focus of their efforts.
-- Faceoff wing play. A huge turnaround from last season; this is largely on the shoulders of transfer Joseph Lisicky, a guy I wish we could've had for his first three years. It certainly also helped having a healthy Chris LaPierre, but Lisicky was the real weapon on the wings; he was a groundball machine and UVA "won" a number of faceoffs after losing them because Lisicky remained in pursuit and had a knack for dislodging a recently-claimed groundball from the opponent's clutches.
-- Groundballs and caused-turnovers. UVA led the country in groundballs per game and was top five in CTs. Pace has something to do with that, but this is not to take away from the tenacity the Hoos showed. Syracuse fans walked away from that game disgusted with the dominance their team allowed that evening when the ball hit the ground. Whatever the reason for losing, you can't fault these two pure-effort stats.
Obviously, though, a few things didn't go so hot. These are....
-- Goaltending. You knew it was going to start here. Matt Barrett finished with a pretty abysmal .467 save percentage. I have neither the memory nor the knowledge of defensive schemes to go back and find out how screwed he might've been by defensive breakdowns, but I sure do recall a few. Later on in the season there were fewer shoulda-had-thats, but it was a really rough start to the year for Barrett and that pretty much set the tone.
-- Faceoff play - kinda. As a team, the percentage was underwater at 47.2%. Mick Parks, though, went .511, his third straight year over .500. Parks's winning percentage is fattened up only a little on crummy teams; he was very average against Mount St. Mary's and Richmond, and acquitted himself well in games such as UNC and Syracuse. The real bug was that too many losses were direct and clean, while the wins often relied on the wings. UNC's FOGO, R.G. Keenan, scored once in each game, mere seconds after winning a faceoff.
-- Offensive X. Owen Van Arsdale led the team with 27 assists, which isn't bad in and of itself, and OVA had some pretty solid plays at times. But those 27 assists are the lowest number to lead the team since Ben Rubeor and Danny Glading shared the lead with 22, back in 2007. Any doubt that, if either of them had been forced to carry the playmaking load on their own, they'd have easily surpassed 30 at least? And they also had Garrett Billings helping out too. (On a similar note, go back one more year to the 2006 championship team, and nobody there had 27 assists, either - but five players had over 20. Bloody hell, it's easy sometimes to forget what a friggin' unstoppable machine that team was.) Anyway. OVA is a favorite whipping boy because he's a coach's son, and sometimes the criticism is unfair and sometimes there's truth in it. He possesses a very stoppable shot (team's second highest SOG% but one of the lowest scoring percentages) and defenses just didn't respect his abilities much. It held the offense back some. They don't keep track of minutes played, but I'm willing to bet Ryan Lukacovic was a more efficient playmaker in terms of points per 60 minutes.
-- Clearing. UVA has racked up quite a reputation for being the best damn clearing team in the country. Last year was their fourth in a row over 90%, a D-I record. This year - forget it. National average is 85.9%; UVA checked in at 85.1%. Below average is not something you associate with UVA's clearing game. The Hoos were 275 of 323; getting to 90% would've meant at least 291 successes. Think we could've used one extra offensive possession per game? (On the plus side, the ride was brilliant; opponents cleared only 76.9%, second-best in the country. File that one with the effort stats above.)
How do things look next season? There's a decent-sized hit coming in the graduation department: UVA loses Mark Cockerton, Rob Emery, and Pat Harbeson from the offense; Joseph Lisicky, Scott McWilliams, Bobby Hill, Blake Riley, and Chris LaPierre from the defense. The offense is probably replaceable. Tyler German, Greg Coholan, and Zed Williams should be more than adequate to fill the midfield holes. Ryan Lukacovic will be asked to take on a very large role, and Starsia talked up Joe French and A.J. Fish before the season. There's always the freshman class, and the possibility that Will McNamara comes back too.** Cockerton was a heckuva player who didn't get the team success he deserved as an upperclassman (though he does have a ring from his freshman year to keep him company) but his production should be replaceable.
On defense, though, that's a huge bodyslam to the SSDM ranks. Ryan Tucker is a really versatile two-way guy but I hate when he has to play defense - I'd rather he focus on offense. Carlson Millikin got into most games this year (12 of 16.) After that - woof. Nobody knows. I'm less worried about the poles; you can build around Tanner Scales and Greg Danseglio. Matt Barrett's improvement in the second half of the year is an encouraging sign, especially considering that's the tough part of the season. I do expect an uptick in goalie play.
It's fair to make the case that this year was just a step in a longer-than-usual rebuilding process. Why it's taken longer than usual is a discussion for another day; we're certainly used to instant re-gratification, and it'd be real nice if we got back to that as the long-term trend kthxbai. But the offense bounced back from a weak showing last year and should continue to be strong. It's up to the defense not to derail the process.
**This is already the subject of heavy speculation and will continue to be until we learn anything one way or the other. McNamara was a super-recruit but missed 2013 with injury and left school "for personal reasons" this year; Starsia left the door wide open for his return, though, and hinted at the possibility in his season-ending interview with Jeff White.