Q&A with ESPN's Mark Dixon
ESPN analyst and former Johns Hopkins midfielder Mark Dixon will be monitoring the quarterfinals from the ESPNU studio in Charlotte, N.C., this weekend. Dixon assessed the impact of Syracuse’s upset loss on the sport, Maryland’s contest against Notre Dame and the one game with the most potential for another surprise.
Question: What’s the impact of Syracuse’s double-overtime loss to Army in the first round of the NCAA tournament, particularly as it pertains to the landscape of lacrosse?
Mark Dixon: "I think it shows the value of automatic qualifiers. A lot of people hem and haw about AQs, and the MAAC [Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference] and the Patriot League, in particular, are two conferences that get dumped on in terms of automatic qualifiers. People say that they’re not that strong and that if they didn’t have the automatic qualifiers, they wouldn’t make the tournament field. But I think that fuels recruiting and brings kids to the table that might sit on the bench for a Maryand or a Syracuse. Now they can play right away for some of these schools that have automatic qualifiers. Army, being a service academy, is a different animal and gets a different type of student-athlete. But still, I think it speaks to the value of automatic qualifiers. I think to the more immediate future, unfortunately, Syracuse being knocked out is going to hurt the attendance of the championships in Baltimore. Syracuse always brings down a large and unique fan base, and I think attendance will probably be hurt at M&T Bank Stadium. I could be wrong, but any records that we were hoping to be broken this Memorial Day weekend have probably gone out the window. You’re still going to get a very good crowd and great games and tremendous competition."
Q: So Syracuse’s absence has a negative impact on the sport?
MD: "I think it has a negative impact on attendance, but I think it’s better for the sport when you have some fresh blood in there. Now you’ve got Army and Cornell. You’ve got a service academy possibly getting into the national semifinals for the first time since Navy did it in 2004. Cornell’s a team looking to go back for the third time in four years. You look at Maryland and Notre Dame. Maryland’s a team looking for a little redemption perhaps after a disappointing ’09. Now they come in and they can make a run at the championship. Notre Dame is an underdog. A lot of people thought they didn’t belong in the tournament, but they pulled off the upset of Princeton. Duke-Carolina, what a great match-up there. Can North Carolina return to the national semifinals for the first time since 1993? If Duke gets there, is this the year they get over the hump and can they win the national championship? Stony Brook is an intriguing team. First quarterfinal appearance ever, and they would make history if the they could make the national semifinals. And of course, Virginia, the No. 1 seed, all the drama and focus surrounding that team because of the tragedy in Charlottesville. Can they weather the storm of not only being the No. 1 seed, but also all of the off-field incidents that have taken place? So there are still many, many storylines, many subplots. With Syracuse, the storyline there was: Can they win their third straight national championship? It’s a program rich in tradition. But without them there, I don’t think it hurts the landscape. I think it makes the tournament a little wide open right now."
Q: You wrote an insightful column for Inside Lacrosse about how Mount St. Mary’s qualifying for the NCAA Tournament actually helped Army. Could you elaborate on that?
MD: "The MAAC tournament can always be a wild card, and what I mean by that is the AQ from that conference typically gets placed based on geography. So you’ve got Siena in the north and Mount St. Mary’s in the south. Had Siena won that game against Mount St. Mary’s in the MAAC championship, they would have gone to Syracuse. I can’t speak with 110 percent, but if past history is any indication, they would have gone north to play Syracuse, and that would have created a little bit of a domino effect. Maybe Loyola would have gone to Virginia with Army going to Cornell. It would have completely changed the landscape of the tournament. Look, Army still had to go out on the field and beat Syracuse, but I think Mount St. Mary’s beating Siena, that gave Army the opportunity to do what they did on Sunday, and that was upset Syracuse."
Q: Will Army’s ride in the NCAA tournament continue?
MD: "I did a quick version of Quint [Kessenich]-vs.-Dixon thing for Inside Lacrosse, and we each picked our upset special, and mine is Army over Cornell. When you look at the two teams and their personalities, they’re very similar. The attack leads the way offensively, they like to play 6-on-6 offense, half-field. Decent goaltending, good, strong defenses, teams that don’t beat themselves often. But right now, the interesting thing is the way they’re getting it done on the field is going in different directions. Army has shown an ability to come back, and they exemplify all of the things you see in a service academy. Discipline, patience, perseverance. Cornell is a heck of a team. They’re extremely well-coached, and they’re a very disciplined bunch, too. But they have had problems putting teams away. Three games ago, they almost gave up a late lead to Princeton. In the Ivy League championship game of that tournament, they gave up the late lead and lost in overtime [to Princeton]. And after being up seven goals to Loyola on Saturday, they allowed the Greyhounds to come back. And that’s how Army got back into the Syracuse game. I think Army is playing great, and they’re going to have fan support. Not that anybody dislikes Cornell, but anytime you have a service academy making a run at the national semifinals, people get behind service academies. This is a team that hasn’t been to the quarterfinals since 1993. [Coach] Joe Alberici has done a tremendous job up there with a dangerous attack in [junior Jeremy] Boltus and [freshman Garrett] Thul, a good 1-2 punch. A good goaltender in [junior] Tom Palesky. The Henderson brothers [on defense] are tremendous. [Senior] Bill Henderson did a great job on [Syracuse senior attackman Chris] Daniello this past weekend. He’ll probably get the assignment against [Cornell sophomore attackman Rob] Pannell. And then [sophomore] Tim Henderson at the long-stick midfield position will probably match up with guys like [sophomore midfielder] Roy Lang. So it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Army could continue this run and pull the second upset."
Q: So is the Army-Cornell game the most compelling quarterfinal?
MD: "There’s a lot of storylines. Stony Brook basically has a home game. That place will be sold out with 8,000 people behind Stony Brook. Virginia will travel well, but that is a home game for Stony Brook. And then you’ve got Maryland-Notre Dame, which is a rematch of last year’s first round. Notre Dame is a team built to make a deep run into the tournament. In the NCAA tournament, goals are so hard to come by because everyone has seen everyone play eight or nine times on film – if not in person – and it’s hard to score goals. They’ve got [senior goalie Scott] Rodgers healthy with a great defense. Maryland has a terrific offense and a terrific defense of their own, and now the roles are reversed. Maryland is the favorite and Notre Dame is the underdog. And then you’ve got Carolina-Duke. Carolina manhandled Duke in Durham back in March, and [fifth-year senior attackman] Ned Crotty was held to double doughnuts [zero goals and assists]. Now the roles are sort of reversed. North Carolina is a team that looks like it’s struggling and [junior attackman] Billy Bitter looks like he’s banged up. So is it Duke that gets revenge? So I think every game has a heck of a storyline to it. But in terms of intrigue and upsets, yeah, Army is the most captivating in terms of the most unlikely team to get to the quarterfinals."
Q: When the smoke clears, will there be three Atlantic Coast Conference teams in the Final Four?
MD: "Yes. I think that Virginia takes care of Stony Brook, the Duke-Carolina winner goes, and I think Maryland – with the their energy and the way they play and if they shoot well – that’s a team finding a way to win right now."
Q: If there’s one key statistical category that Maryland needs to dominate against Notre Dame, what would it be?
MD: "Ground balls. Maryland ranks in the top three in the country in ground balls per game. They’re unbelievable on the ground, especially on ground balls in the defensive end. And this is where a guy like [redshirt junior long-stick midfielder] Brian Farrell is going to be a huge difference-maker, and same with [freshman long-stick midfielder] Jesse Bernhardt. Notre Dame’s strength is their midfield. We saw [junior] David Earl score five against Princeton. They’ve got [junior Zach] Brenneman and [senior Grant] Krebs. So it’s ground balls overall, but in particular, ground balls in their defensive end, getting the ball going from defense to offense."
Q: With two of the five finalists for the Tewaaraton Award getting bounced from the first round (Delaware senior attackman Curtis Dickson and Syracuse junior long-stick midfielder Joel White), should there be some consideration for expanding the future pool of finalists?
MD: "I’m not so sure that I would agree. Sometimes, you have to make tough decisions, and this is a year when there were a lot of really talented players. Curtis Dickson had 62 goals. He didn’t score against North Carolina, but look at the impact that he had on that game. He drew five penalties – three slashes, two interference calls, and he was doubled every time he even got within an inch of the ball. [Stony Brook junior midfielder] Kevin Crowley, a guy who scored three goals against Denver, put the team on his back when they needed him to score some goals. I bring those two up because I think those are the ones that people are scratching their heads about, but that’s because they’re from the non-traditional powers. So I don’t know if I necessarily agree with expanding it because I think you’re setting yourself up for a dangerous precedent. Who is to say that you’re going to have that many candidates next year? Whenever it comes down to things like the Tewaaraton and All-American, tough decisions have to be made. The committee made their decision, and you have to respect it."