Q&A with ESPN's Mark Dixon

ESPN analyst and former Johns Hopkins midfielder Mark Dixon is prepping for the upcoming season, which begins on Feb. 19 when he covers Johns Hopkins’ visit to Towson. Here are some of his thoughts on the 2011 campaign.

Question: Is there a clear-cut favorite to capture the NCAA championship this season?

Mark Dixon: “I don’t know if you want to call them a clear-cut favorite, but my chips are with Syracuse. I just think that with the senior class that they have – they’ve got seven seniors who are legitimate All-American candidates and all seven were selected in the Major League Lacrosse draft and they were all gone, I think, by the fourth round of an eight-round draft – that just really speaks to the talent that Syracuse has. They’ve got two other things working for them. They’ve got a quarterback for the offense, and that’s JoJo Marasco – something they didn’t have last year. And they’ve got that stinging playoff loss back in their minds. And if you recall the last time Syracuse had such a disappointing playoff outcome, that was the year they didn’t make the playoffs in 2007, and they followed that up with national championships in 2008 and 2009. So Syracuse is my No. 1 right now. I think you’ve got Virginia, you’ve got Notre Dame, you’ve got Maryland. But my preseason favorite is Syracuse.”

Q: Is there a team that may be getting a ranking that you question?

MD: “I think Duke would have to be the team that I would point to simply because of everything that they lost. I vote for the Inside Lacrosse Face-Off Yearbook, which pretty much has become the standard for preseason rankings, and I believe Duke was ranked fifth in that. I just think with what they’ve lost in [Ned] Crotty, [Max] Quinzani, Parker McKee, their No. 1 face-off guy in Sam Payton, a bunch of middies, [defenseman Dan] Theodoridas, [midfielder Jonathan] Livadas, [midfielder] Will McKee, No. 5 at this point is a little high for Duke. Anecdotally, North Carolina at No. 3 is looking a little shaky. The reason being is that they’ve had a number of injuries down in Chapel Hill in the preseason, and you couple that with the fact that Steven Rastivo, one of their goalies, is right now ineligible. He’s not on their roster, and I think that was something that was going to be healthy for that team, to have a healthy goalie competition between him and Chris Madalon. And also, you have to take into account the defense. They collapsed last year, so can they turn that around? I think they can turn that collapse on defense around. I think Joe Breschi will be good there, but North Carolina at No. 3 right now is looking a little shaky. But that’s not a result of preseason voting. That’s a result of some of the preseason games and practices where they’ve had a number of injuries."

Q: On the flipside, is there a team that’s being underestimated?

MD: “I think if you talk to any coach, they’ll probably say their team is not getting enough love. Or maybe not. There are some coaches that like to fly under the radar. I think one team is Denver. That’s a team that’s very talented, they won the ECAC last year, Bill Tierney is their coach which is a huge boost for any program. He took over a Denver program that was really in shambles. I believe the year before, almost a quarter of that team was suspended or kicked off the team. It was just really a mess. So not only to bring those guys together, but to get to the NCAAs last year was a huge accomplishment for the Pioneers. They’ve got some really nice games. They play Syracuse, Notre Dame, Duke, a huge game against Loyola in Baltimore in mid-March. On paper, that will decide the No. 1 seed in the ECAC Tournament. But I do believe that the ECAC Tournament is held in Denver this year because they won the championship last year. Huge advantage for the Pioneers. They’ve got some real nice players coming back. [Junior attackman] Mark Matthews, [junior attackman] Alex Demopoulos, they’ve got a nice middie in [sophomore] Cameron Flint. They’ll have to replace Dillon Roy, who was their best player last year, but I think Denver’s one of those teams that’s flying under the radar right now.”

Q: Which team has the best attack?

MD: “Right now, I’d put the No. 1 moniker on Hofstra. When you look at [senior] Jay Card, who I think was a second- or third-round pick selection in Major League Lacrosse, the evolution of his game has been incredible from when he came in as a freshman as just a pure finisher to exploding last year. This year, I think he’s really going to be looked at as one of the premier attackmen in the country. You couple him with [seniors] Jamie Lincoln and Stephen Bentz, and I think that’s a great group. A close second, maybe even 1A, would be Virginia. I think [junior] Steele Stanwick is phenomenal. And of his supporting cast, [junior] Chris Bocklet is a great finisher, [sophomore] Connor English is very, very good.”

Q: Which team has the best midfield?

MD: “I think you’ve got to go with Virginia simply because of you’ve got two of the best in the country in [seniors] Shamel and Rhamel Bratton. I think that they’re a dynamite midfield and are so athletic that they cause match-up problems all over the place. And then you’ve got a guy like [senior] John Haldy, who’s a great third guy you can plug in. Chris LaPierre is going to be a sophomore. I think Notre Dame, too. [Senior] Zach Brenneman is one of the top five players in the country, in my opinion. You’ve got [senior] David Earl, and that’s really a strong unit there.”

Q: Which team has the best defense?

MD: “I think right now, you’ve probably got to give the nod to Syracuse. [Senior long-stick midfielder] Joel White was Midfielder of the Year last year and is just such a dynamic force, getting groundballs, taking the opponent’s top middie, and leading the Syracuse transition game. [Senior defenseman] John Lade is one of the best cover guys in the country. Then you’ve got [sophomore] Brian Megill. And then with [senior goalkeeper] John Galloway, Galloway’s as good as it gets. But right behind them is Notre Dame. This is a unit that gets back [senior defenseman] Sam Barnes who missed all of last year. He’s excellent and was selected by Major League Lacrosse. [Senior] Kevin Ridgway was selected by Major League Lacrosse. They’ve got one of the best long-stick middies in the country in [senior] Andrew Irving, who’s just a groundball vacuum. They’ve got a kid in [junior] Jake Brems who’s coming back from injury and is phenomenal. And [junior] Kevin Randall is another guy who plays down there and is very, very good. They replaced their goalie in Scott Rodgers, who was terrific and the MOP [Most Oustanding Player] in the [NCAA] tournament last year, but [sophomore] John Kemp is very, very capabIe, and if he can elevate his game, I think Notre Dame is just a half-inch behind Syracuse at this point.”

Q: Speaking of Notre Dame, can the Fighting Irish prove that last spring’s run to the national title game wasn’t a one-year wonder?

MD: “Well, if you remember last season, I think they lost four out of six. They had a rough stretch there, and Notre Dame’s not a team that is going to score 12 to 14 goals per game. Nor on the defensive end do they have the flashy guy who’s going to throw his stick around or chase you to the parking lot to take the ball away. but they’re very disciplined, they’re very well-coached, and they’re athletic. They play a very cerebral style of lacrosse. Notre Dame is a team that is very dangerous when you get to a knockout tournament and if they get the right match-ups, and last year, they got perfect match-ups. Princeton in the first round was a team struggling to score goals. Maryland in the quarterfinals was a team that had a penchant to go cold offensively when they were really being frustrated by a goaltender. And then they get to the semis and the championship. So I do believe that Notre Dame – if it’s true that offenses win games and defenses win championships – has one of the top two or three [defensive] units in the country. So I think that’s a huge feather in their cap. I think they’ve showed that their attack is a little bit better this year. In the scrimmages against Team USA and Robert Morris, the attack fared well. I think for them to be dangerous, they’re going to have to cobble together goals and shoot better. But if Notre Dame does get back to Baltimore [for Final Four weekend], I don’t think it would surprise anybody. I’ve got them ranked at No. 4 in my preseason poll.”

Q: Who are the leading candidates to win the Tewaaraton Award?

MD: “The theme this year is seniors, and there are so many seniors out there. I think right away, you’ve got to point to [senior midfielder] Kevin Crowley from Stony Brook to take home the top prize. I think it starts with Kevin Crowley. Then you’ve got [attackman] Billy Bitter at North Carolina, Joel White at Syracuse, Shamel Bratton at Virginia, and coincidentally, they were the top four picks in the Major League Lacrosse draft. Crowley went [No.] 1, White went [No.] 2, Bitter went [No.] 3, and Bratton went [No.] 4. And if you’re looking for a wildcard, I would probably point to [junior attackman] Rob Pannell of Cornell, who has just been dynamite in his first two seasons up in Ithaca, and much like last season, no one’s really talking about Cornell right now. Coaching change, they lost some talent, and therefore, no one’s really talking about Pannell as an individual. So I think Pannell might round out your top five. And I would throw in Zach Brenneman from Notre Dame. So those are my top six guys who might be in DC for that presentation later on in the year.”

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