ESPN analyst and former Johns Hopkins midfielder Mark Dixon will provide commentary on Saturday’s contest between Colonial Athletic Association rivals Towson and Hofstra at Johnny Unitas Stadium in Towson on Saturday. Prior to then, Dixon was kind enough to discuss why he thinks Notre Dame could be the last undefeated team left in Division I, whether 1-5 Princeton can still make the NCAA tournament, and how Duke has reeled off six consecutive wins since a 1-2 start.
Question: Of the two remaining undefeated teams in Division I, does top-ranked Syracuse (7-0) or No. 3 Notre Dame (6-0) have a better chance of staying that way before these two meet on April 30?
Answer: I think both of them have the best defenses in the country. I think Notre Dame probably plays – on paper – the “easier” schedule. They did beat Rutgers [Sunday], 8-3, and they continue to lean on that defense and cobble goals together. Syracuse is a team that has shown that it can play any style that’s necessary to win. They can run or they can play slow-down. They didn’t shoot particularly well [Saturday] night against Villanova. Notre Dame still has to play Villanova [on Saturday], which should be a great game. Probably in my heart of hearts, I’d say that Notre Dame may have a better chance of being undefeated, but if both of them are undefeated on April 30 when they play one another, I won’t be surprised at all.
Q: What was the most surprising result of the weekend?
A: Obviously, Hopkins beating Virginia was surprising. I thought the game would be close, but I didn’t necessarily think that Hopkins was going to beat Virginia just based on the offensive firepower that the Cavaliers possess. I guess the second surprise would be North Carolina beating Maryland. I thought Maryland would win that game maybe by three or four goals. And not only that Maryland lost, but the fact that it was freshmen from North Carolina that led the charge offensively. I think the freshmen combined for 14 points in that game – seven goals and seven assists. So that surprised me as well.
Q: What does the 12-11 win against No. 2 Virginia mean for No. 9 Johns Hopkins?
A: One, it gives them a marquee victory. It gives them a win that when you couple it with their strength of schedule – and last year, the argument was, who did Hopkins beat? – it’s a quality win. It also gives those kids a lot of excitement and a lot of personal satisfaction. I was at the game [Saturday], and I was sitting with my family at the scoreboard end [of Homewood Field in Baltimore], and when the game ended, these guys were running onto the field and jumping on one another. I was thinking to myself, “Wow, that’s kind of unusual for a Dave Pietramala team to be celebrating like that.” But when you consider what that senior class has been through, they haven’t beaten Syracuse, they haven’t beaten North Carolina, and they hadn’t beaten Virginia until [Saturday]. So to have that victory and to be able to savor that and enjoy it, I think it means a lot to them. It means a lot for their confidence, it means a marquee win that will go a long way on Selection Sunday should they be able to handle their business in relatively decent fashion from here on out. But I’m sure that Dave Pietramala is already hitting on this theme, that one win and one game does not make a season. They’ve got North Carolina up next, a team they haven’t beaten in three seasons. Then they’ve got a tough Albany squad, which has shown the ability to beat anybody when healthy and when they execute. And then of course, they’ve got Maryland. So it doesn’t get any easier, but I think this gives this group a lot to build on, a lot of confidence, and a lot to be proud of.
Q: On the flipside, what does the 11-6 loss to No. 7 North Carolina mean for No. 6 Maryland?
A: That’s such a senior-laden team, and to get beat at home after being up, 4-1, by essentially a bunch of freshmen, I think that’s got to be disheartening. Everyone has pointed to that [senior attackman] Ryan Young stick penalty as the turning point of the game, but if you remember, near the end of that first quarter when Maryland was up 4-1, they had a goal disallowed after a player was pushed into the crease prior to the shot being released, and once a player enters the crease in any way, shape or form, the play is blown dead immediately if the offense is still in possession of the ball. And on the next play, they hit a pipe. So instead of being up – potentially – 5-1 going into that second quarter, it’s only 4-1. So you had three things that didn’t go their way and kind of stole their momentum. If I’m Maryland, I’m looking at a couple of things. One, I’m looking at the team defense overall. I think teams are getting way too many inside looks against Maryland. [Goalkeeper] Niko Amato was great against Towson, he was terrific against UMBC, and he wasn’t that great [Saturday]. That’s going to happen. Everybody has on off day. And he’s a redshirt freshman who is fronted by all seniors – [defenseman] Ryder Bohlander, the Schmidts [Brett and Max], [long-stick midfielder Brian] Farrell, [short-stick defensive midfielder] Danny Burns. So I think Maryland’s defense has to do a better job of not giving up shots inside. And two, I think the offense has to do a better job of finishing. When you win 15-of-20 faceoffs and you win the ground balls, you’ve got to shoot the ball better. Right now, [senior attackman Grant] Catalino is the only outside threat. This team desperately misses [senior attackman] Travis Reed. He was having a nice 2011, and he’s got that heavy left-handed shot. You put Catalino on the right, Reed on the left, and that really opens a lot of things up. Now teams are keying on Catalino or playing zone and daring other players to beat them from the outside, and it’s just not happening for Maryland. But Maryland’s got Virginia, Navy, Johns Hopkins, so Maryland has a lot of opportunity in front of them.
Q: With Princeton falling to 1-5 overall and 0-2 in the Ivy League, do the Tigers still have a shot at qualifying for the NCAA tournament?
A: They do. They’ve lost to Penn, and they’ve lost to Yale, but they still have Cornell, they still have Dartmouth which is still undefeated in the Ivy League, and they also have to play Brown and Harvard. So they have opportunity to make it into Ivy League tournament, which is a four-team tournament, and the winner gets the automatic qualifier. So they still have some opportunity in front of them. It’s going to be tough though. They lost to Yale [Saturday], and the injuries continue to pile up. One of their short-stick defensive middies [freshman Nick Fernandez, according to The Trentonian] broke his arm and, I think, will be lost for the year. [Senior attackman] Jack McBride came back [from a groin injury], and now he‘s back on the shelf, and apparently, a decision is due on him in the next couple of days on whether he’ll be able to play the rest of the season. He may miss the remainder of the season. So they’ve just got a lot of injury problems, and you couple that with [sophomore midfielder] Mike Chanenchuk not coming back in the offseason, and defensively, they’ve struggled. That’s surprising. You knew they were going to have to play more defense. With the type of two-man offense that they play, it can lead to a lot of turnovers and things of that nature. So you knew the defense was going to have a little bit more pressure on it, but I think the defense has been a bit more undisciplined. The midfield defense hasn’t been that strong. [Sophomore midfielder] Jeff Froccaro hasn’t been able to follow up a sensational freshman season. There’s been a number of things that aren’t going well for Princeton. And I think another thing you can point to is, they’re only winning about 38 percent of their faceoffs. When they get the ball on offense, they can do some things, but winning faceoffs has been a huge problem for them, which puts more pressure on their defense. So it’s going to be an uphill battle, but they definitely have some opportunity in front of them.
Q: When you’re talking about the hottest team in the country right now, it’s difficult to overlook the last two remaining undefeated teams, but could No. 5 Duke also make a claim?
A: I’m incredibly impressed with the turnaround that Duke has had, and they’re actually having a better regular season up to this point than at this point in 2010. I think they had lost three games even before they got out of the month of March. I think you really have to tip your cap to [coach] John Danowski and his coaching staff. They weren’t afraid to make some changes. I think the biggest change was really getting Jordan Wolf, the freshman [attackman] from Lower Merion, Pennsylvania, more involved in the offense. He had seven points [Saturday] against Georgetown. He’s just terrific. I saw him at the Under Armour All-American game and commented at the time that he was a right-handed Max Quinzani with better speed and better dodging ability. He’s just fearless, and he’s been a great addition. I think [goalkeeper] Dan Wigrizer is playing much better than he did last year as a freshman. He’s saving over 60 percent of his shots, and [senior] Tom Montelli is leading a defense that – if you remember – lost Mike Manley in the offseason to a torn ACL in addition to losing Parker McKee to graduation. But I think when you look all around, they’re playing at such a high level right now. They beat Georgetown by two, and some people might scoff at that, but this weekend was all about close games and teams giving up leads. I think Duke right now is playing at a very high level, and fans are in for a real treat next Sunday at the Big City Classic when they face off against Syracuse. And you had asked the question of who do I think has a better chance of going undefeated in the regular season between Notre Dame and Syracuse, and the Duke game against the Orange next Sunday is a big reason why I may just shade a little bit towards the Notre Dame side of that equation.
Q: Could I ask you to review each conference that has an automatic qualifier for that league’s tournament champion and pick the leading candidate for that AQ? Let’s start with the Ivy League.
A: Last year, the four teams that made it into the [conference] tournament, the semifinals were determined by one goal and then the championship game was one goal. So I think the margin for error is razor-thin. Cornell beat Penn yesterday in overtime, Yale beat Princeton in overtime, Dartmouth beat Harvard in a close game. I think it’s anybody’s ball game right now, but until proven otherwise, I think you still have to go with the Cornell Big Red. They’ve been the team to dominate the Ivy League over the last five or six years.
Q: What about the Colonial Athletic Association?
A: Another one that’s just an absolute mess. You have Hofstra losing to Delaware a week ago, and then they beat Drexel when everybody thought the Dragons were going to make their move. Delaware looks good right now, winning two games in a row over Hofstra and Towson. I think when you look at this, you still have to go with Hofstra despite the fact that they’ve lost [fifth-year senior midfielder] Steve Serling probably for the year because of a lacerated kidney. But I think they will still have enough balance in the midfield. You’ve got that attack that is so explosive, and the defense is playing better. So I think you still have to go with the Pride.
Q: How about the Eastern College Athletic Conference?
A: The ECAC is Denver’s to lose. Not only will they make the four-team tournament, but then they have the tournament being held in Denver. So I think the Pioneers are the clear favorite.
Q: The Patriot League?
A: I have to go with Army, the Black Knights. They’re playing some pretty good lacrosse right now. For the last, I think, five games, they’ve been without [senior] Bill Henderson, their best defenseman and a captain. [Senior defenseman] Matt Marasco didn’t play [Saturday], and they still beat Lafayette, 7-6. So people might look at that score and say, “What’s going on with that?” But I think Army is your team in the Patriot. But keep an eye on Bucknell. I think they’re playing some pretty good lacrosse right now. Then again, they did lose to Robert Morris mid-week, and that’s the crazy thing. You look at a team like Bucknell, and they’re sitting at 6-1 and you see Robert Morris on their schedule and you think, “OK, they’re going to go to 7-1.” And then they lose. But I think right now, Army is the team to beat.
Q: The America East?
A: It used to be a one-horse race with Stony Brook, but with the Seawolves losing to Towson and then to Cornell, I think you have to start looking at some other teams. I think Albany – if healthy – has the ability to take Stony Brook down. They’ve had some injuries. [Senior midfielder] Brian Caufield has missed some games, [junior midfielder] Rocky Bonitatibus has missed a few games. I think when healthy, Albany is the greatest challenger to Stony Brook in the America East. But if I had to pick one today, with [senior midfielder] Kevin Crowley and his ability individually, I’d probably still stick with Stony Brook.
Q: The Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference?
A: Right now, you’d have to go with Jacksonville. I think the Dolphins are playing pretty good lacrosse, and that would be a pretty sweet story, a lacrosse program in its second year of existence. Their best player, in my opinion, is [senior] midfielder Bobby Stockton, the transfer from UMBC. I think he’s a terrific player.