Army’s Brendan Nichtern Presents Syracuse Men’s Lacrosse’s Biggest Test So Far
By Cameron Macaulay
CitrusTV Men’s Lacrosse Beat Reporter
Brendan Nichtern is only at West Point, but he’s already a general. Not one that commands troops on the front lines, but one that commands the Army offense game in and game out. In 2019, he broke Army’s single-season assist record, finished the regular season 12th in the nation in points per game, and became just the third Army player to be named an All-American as a freshman. On Sunday in the Dome, he will be the one tasked with breaking down Syracuse’s defense.
Through the Black Knights first four games, Nichtern has put up nine more points and taken 12 more shots than anyone else on his team. Thus, Army’s game plan is clear: get the ball to Nichtern and let him make plays.
Nichtern functions as the quarterback for the Black Knights, constantly looking to draw slides or catch defenders ball-watching in order to find his teammates for assists. Nichtern is best with the ball in his hands at X, making plays for others but he can also be dangerous dodging from the corner, trying to blow past defenders with his speed as a capable shooting threat. Going into the weekend, he is third in the NCAA with 15 assists, and Army ranks seventh in the nation in Lacrosse Reference’s adjusted shooting percentage because Nichtern is able to generate quality looks.
As an example in the play above, Nichtern attacks his close defender from the corner while keeping his head up to see where the slide is coming from. Most attackers will look for the near-side ball towards the crease, but Rutgers sends three men in Nichtern’s general vicinity, freeing up Sean O’Brian for the skip pass and leading to a goal.
Army’s go-to method of generating looks for Nichtern is to send another attack, normally 6-foot-4 O’Brian to set a pick for Nichtern. This either buys enough space for Nichtern to turn the corner and force a slide, or causes the defense to have to switch defenders. In the play above, the pick generates enough space for Nichtern to catch the UMass defender ball-watching. Expect the Black Knights to run this play multiple times on Sunday, hoping to either force Nick DiPietro, Grant Murphy on Nichtern or get Nichtern an extra step on SU’s cover defender.
As for Syracuse’s defense, all indications point to two-time All-American Mellen being a game-time decision after suffering a lower body injury in SU’s first game against Colgate. Head Coach John Desko described Mellen as “week-to-week” ahead of Sunday’s contest. Mellen spent most of SU’s 2019 contest against Army guarding Nichtern, and limited him to three points while causing three turnovers, two of which came against Nichtern.
“That’s what we do with Nick,” Desko said after the game. “We put him on the best guy and I think he can get a lot of stops on some great attackmen.”
Mellen’s health could be an issue in this year’s edition, however, as Army will run Nichtern through screens in an effort to free him up and put him against a different defender. If Mellen is not playing, look for Brett Kennedy to take up the role of primary cover defender. Kennedy has played close defense in both of Syracuse’s games this season after moving from long-stick midfielder over the offseason. Most recently, he held Binghamton’s top attacker, Will Talbott-Shere to just one assist and zero goals while causing a turnover and racking up four ground balls.
“Brett’s made a very good adjustment there,” Desko said. “We were smart, we worked him a lot at close defense in the fall.”
Kennedy was a third-team All-American at LSM last season, but was all-ACC in 2017 in close defense. “He’s done very well, [has] good positioning, hasn’t tried to do too much.”
Regardless of whether Mellen plays, Syracuse will be able to put a Inside Lacrosse Preseason All-American against Nichtern on Sunday. And whether Mellen or Kennedy are guarding Nichtern, they will need to fight through picks as Army will look to free their star sophomore up or force a switch onto one of SU’s less experienced defenders. Nichtern poses the biggest challenge this new-look Orange defense has faced so far in 2020, and in order to grind Army’s offense to a half, it will need to cut off the Black Knights’ leader.
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