Q&A with ESPN's Mark Dixon
ESPN analyst and former Johns Hopkins midfielder Mark Dixon prowled the sidelines of all four NCAA tournament quarterfinals this past weekend, observing and collecting notes on what he saw and heard. Dixon, who will provide radio commentary for the NCAA Network on Westwood One for the semifinals on Saturday and the final on Monday at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, offered his opinion on the results in the quarterfinals, the favorite to capture the national championship and the leading candidate to take the Tewaaaraton Award.
Although each quarterfinal game ended with the lower-seeded team defeating a higher-seeded opponent, many of these teams were evenly matched. So it’s not fair to say that the entire round was defined by upsets, is it?
I would agree with you. I think everybody’s favorite all year was Syracuse, but Syracuse played seven games where they won by two goals or less and then of course, they lost to Cornell. So while Syracuse was the No. 1 seed and probably the majority of people’s favorite [to win], they weren’t really dominant in most of the games this season. They really turned it on late, but it was against some not-as-stiff competition. If you look at a team like Virginia, the No. 7 seed, that was everybody’s pick to go to championship weekend. With the events that took place this season, they fell off a little bit and they lost some games and the defense wasn’t playing well. Now they’re in there, but this isn’t the Virginia team that people picked to make it to championship weekend. So I think when you look at the whole gamut of the season, no one team was that dominating squad. No one team got you to say, ‘Wow, I’m betting the house on this team to win the national title.’ It just never happened. So I think it speaks to the separation between the elite lacrosse teams in the country, which is very, very narrow.
Can we say that the four teams in the national semifinals – No. 5 seed Duke, No. 6 seed Denver, Virginia and unseeded Maryland – were at some point in the season contenders for the NCAA championship?
With the exception of Denver. I think everybody knew that Denver was going to be better. But if you would have told me back in February that Denver would be in the national semifinals, I don’t think I would have said Denver. And the same thing could be said of Duke. I thought Duke would make the tournament with maybe a first-round or quarterfinal loss, but all of the leadership they lost last year in addition to the productivity – I know everybody speaks about [Max] Quinzani and [Ned] Crotty on the attack, but they also lost Steve Schoeffel in the midfield and Parker McKee on the defensive end and then over the summer, they lost [defenseman] Mike Manley to a knee injury. So I think Duke and Denver are surprising. Maryland and Virginia are two teams that the majority of folks picked to get to championship weekend. But of course, Maryland was up and down in its play, and we already discussed Virginia. So I think Duke and Denver are surprising from the preseason standpoint. Now as the season wore on and we had the Duke-Notre Dame game yesterday, I think you could say, ‘Yeah, anybody could win that game.’ But the Hopkins-Denver game, you thought Hopkins was going to be able to control the faceoffs a little better and really test that Denver defense, and they never got that chance.
Would you say that Johns Hopkins’ performance in the 14-9 loss to Denver was the most stunning of the weekend?
No, because the Cornell-Virginia game was a little bit more surprising to me, and it was Cornell’s inability to solve Virginia’s defense. Cornell had a lot of possessions, Hopkins didn’t. Hopkins was not able to win that 63 percent of faceoffs that [senior] Matt Dolente usually controls. [Sophomore goalkeeper] Pierce Bassett also didn’t have one of his better games, and those were two very vital components of Hopkins’ success this season. Bassett had opportunities to make saves, but the defense struggled a little bit as did he. But they never really controlled the tempo of the game. They never controlled the possession time. Whereas Cornell has major opportunities to penetrate that Virginia defense. thy did a great job of limiting [sophomore attackman and Tewaaraton Award finalist] Rob Pannell, and when Pannell struggles, his complementary players like [senior attackman] Dave Lau and [sophomore attackman] Steve Mock and [sophomore midfielder] Roy Lang usually step up, and they were handcuffed as well. I can’t tell you how many passes and shots were knocked down by the Virginia defense. I haven’t seen anything officially, but unofficially, I saw eight or nine that didn’t even make it to [senior goalkeeper Adam] Ghitelman, and Ghitelman was terrific. … So I’d say Virginia really manhandling Cornell was the most surprising thing to me this weekend.
Which team impressed you the most?
I was impressed with Denver, their athleticism, their speed. [Junior attackman] Mark Matthews was not dominant in the game by any stretch. But their midfield, [sophomore] Cam Flint, [sophomore] Chase Carraro was as good as advertised. It’s interesting because I had a chance to have a conversation with Chase Carraro on Friday and I can look at him right in the eye, which is unusual. He’s a small guy as is [freshman] Jeremy Noble. Cam Flint’s not that much bigger, and in this day and age of your gigantic midfielders, it was pretty impressive to watch those guys. Every team this past weekend impressed me in some way. Virginia and their passion and their defensive game plan as well as their offensive execution was phenomenal. Maryland – let’s face it, how many times has Syracuse trailed in a game, tied the game late, and then won in overtime? Especially on that field in Foxborough [in Massachusetts]. For Maryland to weather that storm and win that game says a ton about their leadership and their perseverance. And then Duke is a team that fell behind 3-1, they made some adjustments, they’ve got playoff experience in terms of getting to the quarterfinals. … Coach [John] Danowski is just so relaxed and his players really reflect that, and I thought they were very calm against a very good Notre Dame defense.
Of the teams in the Final Four, can we call any of them the favorite to take home the grand prize?
I don’t think so. On the flight home yesterday, Quint [Kessenich, ESPN analyst and former Johns Hopkins All-American goalie] and I and Patrick Stevens, who is a writer for The Washington Times, and Russ Dlin, our stat guy, were talking about that. We were arguing that Maryland could be seen as the favorite even though they’re the unseeded team just because of all the seniors. So is Maryland the favorite? They beat Duke in the ACC championship game. But I think it’s wide open. Every team has strengths, every team has weaknesses, and although Virginia and Denver aren’t necessarily familiar with one another, [Cavaliers coach] Dom Starsia and [Pioneers coach] Bill Tierney are. They have a very rich playoff history. And then of course, you’ve got Maryland-Duke in Round 3, and those teams know each other as well as anyone. So I think it’s really a toss-up.
With Virginia junior attackman Steele Stanwick as the only Tewaaraton Award finalist left in the tournament, does he now become the favorite to be named the top player in collegiate lacrosse?
No. I still think it’s Rob Pannell’s. And I say that because Steele missed a couple of games and doesn’t have the numbers that Pannell does. But if Steele Stanwick is the reason Virginia wins the national championship on Monday, I think it’s going to be very difficult to deny him the trophy. He’s been lights out. I’ve said all along that he’s been the leader of that Virginia team. Him and [senior defenseman] Bray Malphrus have been the leaders, and now with the Brattons gone, you don’t have that situation where they just held the ball and dodged. Now Steele is able to orchestrate things from behind. The ball’s in his stick 80 percent of the time, and he just opens things up so well for them by distributing the ball. So I think if Virginia wins that championship and he’s the main reason why, you could see the Tewaaraton headed to Charlottesville.