ESPN's Dixon on NCAA tournament field
ESPN analyst and former Johns Hopkins midfielder Mark Dixon was kind enough to talk to me about some topics I am working on, and the conversation naturally turned to the NCAA tournament’s 16-team field. The following is a Q&A with Dixon that touches on Loyola’s absence, the easiest and toughest paths to the final four and possible first-round upsets.
Q: Did Loyola deserve to be in the tournament?
Mark Dixon: That’s a tough question to answer because it seems like the criteria is different from year to year. For instance, last year, Georgetown had the big win over Duke and was the only team in regular season to beat Duke. But their strength of schedule and RPI [Rating Percentage Index, a formula that combines a team’s record, its opponents’ record and those opponents’ opponents’ records] weren’t really all that strong and their RPI took a huge hit at the end of the season when they lost to Penn State. So Georgetown doesn’t make it, everybody’s screaming bloody murder, but I’m thinking, ‘That makes sense.’ This year, with Loyola, there were three teams battling for the last two spots in Brown, Maryland and Loyola. Loyola’s strength of schedule and RPI were phenomenal, Maryland’s was competitive but not as good as Loyola’s, and Brown the same thing. With this year, it seemed like the emphasis was on quality wins against top-10 teams, and Brown had one against Cornell, and Maryland had those against Duke and North Carolina. So based on those criteria, I think the selection committee got it right. Where I feel for Loyola is on two levels. I think this is the best team Charley Toomey has had, and I really wanted to see P.T. Ricci and Shane Koppens play at least one more time. And you really give them a lot of credit for beefing up their schedule, playing strong out-of-conference opponents. But at the end of the day, I did think the selection committee did get it right. If you look at the numbers and the body of work, they lost very close games to Duke, Syracuse, Notre Dame and Hopkins. But Brown beat Cornell and a common opponent – UMass. I think that was a good benchmark. Brown beat UMass on the road and Loyola lost to UMass at home. … Does Loyola deserve to be in? Yes. Do they deserve to be in more than Brown and Maryland? Some people might say maybe, but I don’t think anybody’s screaming bloody murder that Brown and Maryland are the two teams selected and Loyola wasn’t. I think people feel bad for Loyola and would have liked to see them play for the reasons I stated, but I don’t think it’s an egregious omission. I think it speaks more to a need for a more established criteria. Is it strength of schedule? Is it RPI? Is it quality wins? It can’t be what is seemingly arbitrary. In 2006, Harvard got in based on SOS and RPI, and Georgetown was left out last year due to SOS and RPI. So I think there needs to be a hard and fast criteria, two or three benchmarks. It can’t be a sliding scale.
Q: Which top-four seed has the toughest road to the Final Four?
MD: I’m looking at Duke. I think they’ve got a pretty tough road with Navy. That’s a real tough first-round game, and then they get the winner of Carolina and UMBC. That’s a pretty tough road. And I don’t think Virginia has it made in the shade. They’ve got a potential second-round match-up with Hopkins, and Hopkins played them down to the wire. The theme of this tournament is offense, and who’s going to be able to stop who. I think this year, you’re looking at some great offenses. So I think Duke has a tough road, and Virginia has a tough one as well. It’s going to be no walk in the park for No. 1.
Q: So does Syracuse or Princeton have the easiest road to the Final Four?
MD: I don’t think anybody has it easy. I think they’ve got the two best first-round match-ups. I’m tickled pink that Siena is in for the first time ever. That’s a program that has been rewarded for making a commitment to lacrosse, and now they’re in the NCAAs. But here’s your reward: playing defending national champion Syracuse in the [Carrier] Dome. And then Princeton with UMass, UMass is mostly a defensive team. Less than half of their goals are assisted. So they rely on a lot of one-on-ones. So how do you beat Princeton? For the most part, you’ve got to move the ball. I think they’ve got the two more favorable first-round match-ups of the top four seeds. But then Princeton has maybe Cornell or Hofstra, and that’s a tough bracket. So I’d have to say Syracuse maybe has the easiest road, but easiest in quotation marks because they’re going to get either Notre Dame, which is going to be undefeated if they meet up, or Maryland, which has the talent."
Q: Which game has the biggest potential for an upset?
MD: I think if UMBC can win some faceoffs, it’s UMBC over North Carolina. And then if you’re looking for another one, Hofstra at Cornell. Hofstra laid an egg in the CAA, but they’re a very good team and they can play any style and they can also come back. We’ve seen them come back from many deficits this year. I think at one point against Brown, they were down by seven. So they can play from behind and they can also win tight games. They’ve got six one-goal wins this year. So I think if I’m looking for a first-round upset, the Hofstra game is No. 1 with UMBC-UNC being No. 2.