Q&A with ESPN's Mark Dixon
ESPN analyst and former Johns Hopkins midfielder Mark Dixon will assist coverage of this weekend’s slate of first-round games in the NCAA tournament. Until then, Dixon sounded off on Maryland going on the road, Denver getting a higher seed than he had anticipated and Penn limping its way to the tournament.
It would appear that the NCAA selection committee emphasized RPI more than strength of schedule and quality wins this season. Did you come to the same conclusion?
I think it was two years ago when it was more strength of schedule and RPI that got people in. Last year, it was quality wins. So it seems like the scales get tipped in a different direction every year because I think there’s eight or nine criteria altogether, but it’s not necessarily ranked in any order. So if you have a particular team with a lot of wins or an incredibly strong strength of schedule, you can see things go in different ways. But I definitely think that the numbers played a huge role – they usually do – and I think it was pretty cut and dry with the 16 teams that got in. the team that were left out, you could make arguments very positively for the teams that got in versus why teams didn’t get in. I think the biggest controversy – if you want to call it that – is Denver getting a home game at [the No.] 6 [seed]. When you look at their strength of schedule, I think it was 29 with an RPI of six. And then you’ve got a team like Maryland that has to travel, and they had a better of strength of schedule. Even though their RPI wasn’t as strong, you could argue that they had more quality wins. There’s always going to be those discussions, but I think for the most part, the committee did a good job using the numbers.
So it sounds like you didn’t quibble with the bubble teams that got in and the bubble teams that were left out.
Stony Brook, for selfish reasons, I would have loved to see them play again because I would have liked to have seen [senior midfielder] Kevin Crowley roll out his career. But we’ve been saying it all year that Stony Brook was going to have to win the America East to get the automatic qualifier because they lost to Virginia, they lost to Cornell, and they even lost to Towson. So that’s going to drag down your numbers. They did beat Delaware, but of course Delaware won the automatic qualifier for the CAA [Colonial Athletic Association], so that was a non-issue. But at the end of the day, when you lose your automatic qualifier and your strength of schedule was 30 and your RPI was 13, that’s not going to get the job done. So I have no argument there. Harvard and Colgate, you certainly could have made arguments for them, but then you have Hofstra, who beat them both head-to-head, and that’s where that head-to-head criteria comes in.
Does Maryland have a right to gripe about the reigning Atlantic Coast Conference tournament champion having to travel in the first round and meeting an ACC rival in No. 8 seed North Carolina?
Yeah, I don’t get that. I don’t think that’s really appropriate. They’ve already played twice, and they split. One of the things about the NCAA tournament that makes it so intriguing is you get matchups that you don’t see every day or every season. We’ve got Notre Dame and Penn squaring off, Duke and Delaware are going to play one another, Virginia and Bucknell. So that always makes for interesting matchups. But we know that is not a criteria, so let’s move onto the next, which is the numbers. And when you look at Maryland, they did themselves a huge injustice by losing at home to Colgate this past weekend. But you just can’t erase that whole body of work and what they’ve accomplished this season. They beat Virginia, they beat Duke, they did beat North Carolina. I think they’re 12 and 12 in strength of schedule and RPI [respectively]. If you want to take a look at what-have-you-done-for-me-lately, how about Penn? Their two big wins were against Duke and Bucknell, and they were back in February and early March, and they’re “backing” into the tournament at this point. So I think Maryland does have a gripe. Did they lose a home game? I think so with that loss to Colgate. Having to play Carolina and then Villanova going to Denver, I’m not sure. Look, Denver’s a great team, and they’re playing very well right now and they’re probably going to make me eat my words by saying that they’re seeded too high at six. I thought they were going to go in at eight with either Carolina traveling to them or Maryland traveling to them. Maybe Maryland would prefer to go to North Carolina versus going to Denver. But I just thought that Denver was seeded a little too high and the Maryland-North Carolina rematch, yeah, there’s a certain level of intrigue to that, but been there, done that. I think the committee chair even said that this is a great thing for lacrosse, giving a home game to Denver. I think the Pioneers earned it. But at the same time, I just think they’re seeded maybe a little too high.
What’s the most intriguing first-round contest to you?
I’m really looking at that Hofstra-Johns Hopkins game as being something that could be really, really special. Hofstra’s a team that is 13-2 and looked great. I am shocked they lost to Delaware at home in the first round of that conference tournament. I say that because Hofstra was playing so well and Delaware was playing so poorly going into that game. You’ve got to give a lot of credit to the Blue Hens. They did it again this year, winning the CAA as the No. 4 seed and going on the road twice at Hofstra and then UMass. But I really like that Hopkins-Hofstra matchup. You’ve got two terrific faceoff units, both around 65 to 68 percent, decent goaltenders for both, strong defenses, good attacks. But the midfield is where, I think, this game is going to be won. I love the defensive midfield unit for Hofstra, and I just love the offensive midfielders for Johns Hopkins. So I think that game is a five star.
You referenced Penn backing its way into the field. Is that the team with the most question marks?
No question. When you look at their last couple of games, they got blown out by Virginia, and then they lost in the first round of the Ivy League tournament to Harvard. And a big loss for Penn was they lost freshman Maxx Meyer, who is one of their better defenseman. They got Brett Hughes, the senior, and then Maxx Meyer, the freshman who was just playing great. He broke his leg [prior to the team’s 11-2 loss to Virginia on April 30], and he’s out for the rest of the season. So figuratively and literally, they are limping into the postseason. I think it you’re looking at another team, it would be Villanova. [Junior attackman] Kevin Cunningham has been injured and hasn’t played that much lately. His health will be a huge factor because he’s such a good offensive player. And as it turned out, Villanova’s schedule was more front-loaded. So down the stretch, their competition wasn’t as stiff and then they lost to Georgetown this past weekend. Villanova has had one other tournament appearance, and that was a couple of years ago at Virginia where they just got absolutely decimated [18-6 in 2009]. So Penn and Villanova are the two teams right now that you look at and say, “They’re not coming in with the most momentum.
Which of the top eight seeds has the easiest path to the Final Four at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore on May 28? And which has the toughest path?
There’s no such thing as an easy path. So I don’t see anybody getting to Baltimore without a couple of bumps, scrapes and bruises. The hardest path? I think you have to look at Hopkins, which gets Hofstra in the first round and then possibly a very, very good Denver team in the second round. And then of course, Maryland and North Carolina. Those are two very good lacrosse teams that are going to beat the heck out of each other on Sunday and then in all likelihood, they’re going to have to face [top-seeded] Syracuse.