Q&A with ESPN's Mark Dixon
ESPN analyst and former Johns Hopkins midfielder Mark Dixon is pulling double duty this weekend, providing commentary for No. 5 seed Duke’s first-round game against Johns Hopkins at Koskinen Stadium in Durham, N.C., this Saturday at 12 p.m. and for No. 4 seed North Carolina’s showdown with Delaware at Fetzer Field in Chapel Hill, N.C., this Sunday at 5 p.m Dixon addressed the possibility of shifting criteria, the disadvantages of conference tournaments and the one player missing from the list of five finalists for the Tewaaraton Award.
Question: Were there any glaring omissions in the make-up of the 16-team field?
Mark Dixon: "I think every Monday, there’s always great discussion. The bottom line is, there’s only 60 men’s lacrosse teams playing Division I ball, and you’re going to have some hurt feelings. As it is, with 16 teams, I think the ratio is already out of proportion with what the NCAA wants. I think for the most part, they got it right. It looked like the criteria was a little inconsistent. In other words, Hopkins with their strength of schedule and their RPI seemed to really benefit, whereas Georgetown didn’t get the same luxury. I think they applied some different criteria when they looked at Georgetown and – let’s say – Notre Dame. Georgetown had a better strength of schedule and a better RPI than Notre Dame, also a better win-loss record, and they beat them head-to-head. But the criteria applied looked more at significant wins – Notre Dame’s significant wins coming against Duke, Loyola and Denver, while Georgetown didn’t possess those same wins with oomph. They didn’t have a win over Duke. They had a win over Delaware, but they lost to Loyola. What’s frustrating for lacrosse fans is the criteria seemed to be on an as-needed basis. There is uniform criteria, but they’re not used in a particular order. It just seems like this year, the criteria was split, whereas in years past, the strict criteria was strength of schedule and RPI. This year, the strict criteria appeared to be quality wins. But it’s a monumental task, being on the NCAA selection committee. I feel for Georgetown. I think they should have gotten a bid into the NCAA Tournament, but at the end, if you look at the criteria and you look at the metrics that are used, Notre Dame is in."
Q: Did the loss to Delaware in the Colonial Athletic Association Tournament hurt Drexel, while Hofstra failing to qualify for the CAA Tournament help the Pride get into the NCAA Tournament?
MD: "I actually wrote about this in a piece for Inside Lacrosse this week. I thought the conference tournament hurt both UMass and Drexel. It’s a double-edged sword. It can help you or it can hurt you. Had Drexel beaten Delaware and reached the CAA final, we could be talking about Drexel being in the tournament as opposed to Notre Dame because Drexel beat Notre Dame head-to-head. The conference tournament are built to give teams incentives because if you didn’t have a post-league tournament like they did in the Ivy League, teams like Harvard and Yale have been eliminated in mid-April. Hofstra perhaps did benefit from not making their tournament, but they also had some quality wins outside of the conference, and they were helped out in some other conference tournaments. For example, Army winning the Patriot League. Hofstra had a resounding win over the Black Knights. So that definitely hurt Drexel, but it would have gone in the other direction if Drexel had beaten Delaware and gotten to the CAA final."
Q: Any argument with the top eight seeds?
MD: "I have no beef with the top-8 seeds. I thought they got it right. You could have looked at Denver as maybe being a potential first-round site, but when you look at their numbers compared to Stony Brook, it’s virtually dead even. And even though Denver did beat Stony Brook head-to-head, Stony Brook, I believe, had a better strength of schedule. I think they got it right."
Q: Of the first-round games, which one has "upset alert" written all over it?
MD: "There are two games. I think one is Delaware and [No. 4 seed] North Carolina. Delaware is surging right now, and they’re playing great offensively, and their defense is inspired, particularly with the story of [junior goalkeeper] Noah Fossner [whose mother died of cancer on May 2]. North Carolina has been banged up for such a long time that they’ve lost two of their last four. And in their last three games, they gave up 14 goals, 13 goals and 13 goals. That defense has shown a little bit of wear-and-tear. The second game I’m looking at is Notre Dame-Princeton. If Notre Dame can control the tempo of that game, they’ve got a nice defense. This is a match-up between two goalies that everyone thought at the beginning of the year were going to be first- and second-team All Americans in [Notre Dame senior] Scott Rodgers and [Princeton sophomore] Tyler Fiorito. Rodgers has been hurt and played a little uneven, while Fiorito struggled early before putting together his game lately. Notre Dame’s a team that can win, and you have a second life in the NCAA Tournament."
Q: Which of the top seeds has the easiest path to the Final Four?
MD: "That would probably be Virginia. Mount St. Mary’s is a good ball club and has a tremendous goalie in [junior] T.C. DiBartolo. And then you’ve got the Denver-Stony Brook situation. Virginia has already beaten Stony Brook, and they’ve already beaten Mount St. Mary’s, and I think they match up well with Denver because they have such good face-off credentials. That’s on paper, and that’s just looking at the lacrosse aspect and just a talent aspect. I think everyone is eager to see how Virginia comes out and plays in the NCAA Tournament with all of the distractions that they’ve had."
Q: Maryland coach Dave Cottle said Hofstra may be the toughest team a No. 3 seed has had to face in recent memory. What do you think?
MD: "I don’t disagree with that. Hofstra is a very dangerous team, but they’re also a very inconsistent team. They’ve beaten Hopkins, Army and Brown, but they also lost to Penn State, which was 2-11. Defensively, this team has been atrocious, and I don’t mean the individual players down there. But they’ve really struggled at the defensive end of the field. [Sophomore] Andrew Gvozden started the year in the net and then was pulled in favor of freshman Rob Bellairs, and now Gvozden is back. So the defensive end is really the big question mark for Hofstra. Offensively, they can play with anyone. [Junior attackmen] Jay Card and Jamie Lincoln are a terrific 1-2 punch, and [junior attackman] Stephen Bentz has had a nice year, and same for [sophomore midfielder] Mike DeNapoli. So offensively, those guys are really, really dangerous, and they’ve got some nice short-stick defensive middies as well. But the defensive end is where Hopkins has really struggled, and Maryland is one of the best groundball teams in the country. Hofstra’s going to have to be good on groundballs, and they’re going to have to try to control the offensive flow of the game because I’m not so sure that Hofstra matches up well with Maryland’s attack unit."
Q: How would you rate Loyola’s chances of upsetting No. 7 seed Cornell?
MD: "I definitely think that Cornell is favored in this game. Loyola has shown over the last couple of weeks that if their attack doesn’t produce, then they’re in trouble. [Senior attackman Collin] Finnerty and [Cooper] MacDonnell have only combined for three points in the last two games – both losses. So I think teams have shown that if you shut down Loyola’s attack, you shut down Loyola. Their midfielders have to step up. They have to beat people off the dodge. [Senior midfielder Chris] Basler can do that, but his status is unknown this weekend with the shoulder injury. The other thing that hurts Loyola is [senior defenseman] Steve Layne’s knee injury. Does he play? He’s the leader of that defense. Not only is he the best cover guy, but he’s the guy who directs the traffic. Loyola doesn’t like to slide a whole lot. I think his presence is huge. And then all of a sudden, the goalie play has been inconsistent. [Junior Jake] Hagelin has struggled the last couple of weeks, and [senior Alex] Peaty has had to come in and relieve him. There’s a lot of question mark for Loyola, but if they can get back to playing the type of lacrosse they played the majority of the year, they’ve got a very similar personality to Cornell – attack heavy which is where the offense is generated from, a good cover defense that doesn’t take a lot of risk and beat itself, and steady goaltending. So I think when these two teams look in the mirror, I just think in the individual match-ups, Cornell has more firepower."
Q: Johns Hopkins is 3-1 in the NCAA Tournament against Duke. Can the Blue Jays extend their magic against the No. 5 seed Blue Devils?
MD: "Even in 2008, Duke was the hands-on favorite to win the championship, and Hopkins pulled off the upset. But this Hopkins team is much different than that team in ’08. The big key is going to be groundballs. Hopkins has not been very good on groundballs this year, and Duke is an athletic team that pressures the ball and gets after it. The groundballs are going to be key on Saturday. Even though Hopkins was beaten handidly by Loyola in the face-off and groundball departments this past Saturday, Loyola couldn’t get to the goal. Duke can, and that’s going to be a big challenge for the Hopkins defense. [Fifth-year senior attackman Ned] Crotty and [senior attackman Max] Quinzani behind the net are as good as they get in college lacrosse. [Junior attackman] Zach Howell is a great third guy. The midfielders for Duke are starting to put points on the board and starting to produce. So the defense for Hopkins really needs to be on its game, and [goalkeeper] Pierce Bassett has just been terrific. I think in the last two games, he has a 72 save percentage. But when you’re talking about Duke, that’s a different animal from Navy, Towson or Loyola. This team is going to put a lot of pressure on him, so we’ll see how he responds. This is a team capable of pulling off the upset, but they’re really going to have to play a perfect game – similar to what they did back in 2008. They’re going to have to really take Duke out of their comfort zone and change some things. But certainly [coach] Dave Pietramala has shown that he can make those adjustments and make things happen."