ESPN analyst Mark Dixon provided play-by-play of fifth-seeded Denver’s 9-5 victory over North Carolina in an NCAA tournament first-round game on Saturday night. The former Johns Hopkins midfielder, who will be in the ESPNU studio in Charlotte for the quarterfinals round next weekend, offered his thoughts on the most stunning result of the weekend, the unseeded team with the best chance to get to the Final Four at M&T Bank Stadium, and his pick for the Tewaaraton Award.
Which first-round outcome stood out the most?
I think the two that stood out the most were Albany going into [third-seeded] Loyola and beating the Greyhounds [13-6] and of course Bryant going into the Carrier Dome and beating [second-seeded] Syracuse [10-9]. I think those were the two results that stand out the most.
In hindsight, were the results not too surprising?
I think the Albany-Loyola one is much more surprising to me simply because Loyola is sound defensively with [senior defenseman Joe] Fletcher and [senior goalkeeper Jack] Runkel. But I did write in my Takeaways column for Inside Lacrosse that you had to find a way to defend [Great Danes senior attackman] Miles Thompson. He is their No. 2 guy, and I think you saw Albany’s No. 2 guy was much, much better than Loyola’s No. 2 on defense. I think that’s a big reason why that game turned out the way that it did. I thought [sophomore goalie] Blaze Riorden played a terrific game. When Albany gets goaltending, they’re incredibly tough to beat, especially if you can’t contain the Thompsons. And Loyola started off shooting very, very poorly. They were victimized by a couple of pipes early on, and if one or two of those go in, we could be talking about a different game. With Bryant-Syracuse, the Bulldogs had been there before. They knew what to expect, being in the [Carrier] Dome, and they’ve got that great combination of really solid faceoffs and great goaltending, and the latter is especially what carried the Bulldogs through. In a way, I know it might sound weird because Syracuse was the No. 2 seed, but losing at home is not unprecedented because they lost to Army a few years ago in the first round at the Dome. So while that was surprising, it was a one-goal game.
What is the significance of four unseeded teams advancing to the quarterfinals?
I think it just says that they have a lot of really good lacrosse teams out there, and it’s not how you got here, it’s not about how you played in March or who you played in March or April. It’s about how you’re playing in May, and it’s about how you’re executing in May. If you look at Drexel, they’re a team that has been in a lot of close games and has had success. They’re really fun to watch offensively, and they just exploded yesterday [in a 16-11 win against fourth-seeded Penn]. Hopkins is a team that has played so many quality opponents all year long. Yes, they had that three-game losing stretch where they lost to Syracuse, Virginia and North Carolina, but it’s all about how you execute on game day, and Hopkins had a great game plan and got the job done [in a 14-8 win against eighth-seeded Virginia]. And we’ve already talked about Albany and Bryant, but Albany lost to Canisius back in March. Bryant lost to Brown and St. Joseph’s, which was the favorite to win the Northeast Conference. It’s about how you play in May. You can talk about being battle-tested and throw all those words around, but you’re got 60 minutes in an NCAA tournament game and that’s all that matters. Sixty minutes are all that matters, and those four teams just played really solid lacrosse and came away with the wins.
Which unseeded team has the best chance to move to the Final Four?
I think when you look at it, Bryant may have the best chance, and I say that because all of the pressure is on Maryland. Bryant has a faceoff man in [junior] Kevin Massa who can match [junior] Charlie Raffa. They have a goaltender in [sophomore] Gunnar Waldt who can match [senior] Niko Amato. So let’s say those two things cancel each other out. Now you’ve got Maryland’s offense against the Bryant defense, and the Bryant offense against the Maryland defense. Obviously, Maryland’s defense is the signature of that program, but I just think that all the pressure in the world is on Maryland. Bryant, they shouldn’t be here, they’re the Cinderella, they’re the underdogs. They’re just going to go out and play. I think when we’ve seen Maryland as the favorite, we’ve seen them lock up. Does that happen? I’m not so sure. Do they have the talent to go to championship weekend? No question. But I think if you look at all four of those games, I think Bryant-Maryland is the best chance for the upset. I think the second one would be Albany-Notre Dame. How can you go up against the Thompsons and how they’ve been playing? In any other year, you might say, “Ok, Notre Dame is the defense that can stop the Great Danes. They’re the ones that are going to have the game plan to stop the Thompsons.” But for Notre Dame, [junior goalkeeper] Conor Kelly had 17 saves [in a 13-5 win] against Harvard, so he’s playing well. Still a very, very good program and very, very well-coached, but it’s just a matter of, can anybody stop the Thompsons at this point? Can anybody slow them down and make other people beat you on that Albany offense? But Notre Dame’s been scoring a lot of goals. In their last three games, they have been off the charts, moving the ball and really doing well.
Which seeded team has the least difficult quarterfinal?
On paper, everybody’s going to look at [fifth-seeded] Denver-Drexel, but Drexel can score goals and Drexel can win faceoffs. We saw Carolina win some faceoffs the other night, but they just couldn’t get into an offensive rhythm. Drexel is a really fun offensive team to watch, and Denver’s defense likes to pack it in, but I don’t know if they’re going to be able to pack it in against Drexel with [senior midfielder Ben] McIntosh’s shooting ability and [junior midfielder Ryan] Belka can bring it from the outside. For the record, there are no easy games, but I think if you’re looking for one on paper, it’s Denver-Drexel, but let’s not forget that Brian Voelker was an assistant to Bill Tierney at Princeton very early in Brian’s coaching career. So they know each other extremely well. Brian, much like [North Carolina coach] Joe Breschi, played for Bill in the 1998 World Games for Team USA.
Regardess of what transpires in the rest of the NCAA tournament, would it be safe to say that the Tewaaraton Award should go to Albany junior A Lyle Thompson, who holds the NCAA single-season record for points at 122 and counting?
I don’t think there’s any doubt when he’s shattered the single-season scoring record [of 114 previously held by former UMBC attackman Steve Marohl]. He’s just playing at such an incredibly high level and what he’s meant to the sport is immeasurable. I love Notre Dame and I think they have a great team and I think they have just as good of a chance as anybody else to get to championship weekend, but I think if Albany makes it to championship weekend, it’s going to have a different feel to it. Lyle Thompson and Miles Thompson are the Pied Pipers of college lacrosse right now, and I think Lyle Thompson is your Tewaaraton winner.