ESPN analyst and former Virginia All-American attackman Matt Ward provided analysis during No. 6 seed Denver’s 13-10 victory over Villanova in the first round of the NCAA tournament on Sunday. The 2006 Tewaaraton Award winner discussed why it’s still fair to talk about parity in college lacrosse, why he’s interested in the Notre Dame-Duke quarterfinal, and why top-seeded Syracuse should beware of a potential upset.
With seven of the top eight seeds winning this past weekend and unseeded Maryland beating No. 8 seed North Carolina, is it fair to say that talk of parity in college lacrosse should stop?
No. I think this year is as wide open as any. If you take a look at the games, Duke-Delaware was very close. UVA was lucky in terms of getting out of Charlottesville with a win. Someone asked me to fill out a bracket, and I couldn’t tell you what was going to happen or who was going to win. I think you’re really going to see the parity this week in terms of anyone being able to beat anybody. It used to be where you could say that four teams were the elite. This year, the top eight are as even as I can remember. Any team can beat anyone to make it to the Final Four. So it’s going to definitely be a fun, interesting weekend.
What team impressed you the most this past weekend?
I think it was Maryland. When Maryland lost to Colgate and ended up not getting seeded and had to play North Carolina in the first round, I looked at Maryland and said, ‘That’s a top three team.’ I’ve thought that all year. They didn’t necessarily play brilliant every single day, but when they do, they’re as good as anybody. In the NCAA tournament, they’re bringing a focus, their hustle, their energy and their best game. When I saw that they had Syracuse, the No. 1 seed, I said, ‘Man, that’s a tough break for the No. 1 seed, to have to play that team in the quarterfinals.’ Maryland dominated possession of the ball against a very good faceoff guy in [freshman] R.G. Keenan of North Carolina. [Sophomore] Curtis Holmes for them has been phenomenal, and when they can do that, their defense is sound enough that they’re going to put on a lot of pressure, and they’re going to be tough to beat. In my opinion, they were the most impressive team.
What team in the quarterfinals has the most question marks?
I think you kind of have to look at Virginia, which is basically playing a very, very young team. We don’t know what’s going to happen with [senior midfielder] Rhamel [Bratton], and they’ve really had to lean on [junior attackman] Steele Stanwick. My concern there is Steele’s been battling a foot injury all year. How is that going to be handled as the pressure is notched up a level? Can they get production from their midfield? They’re playing a Cornell team that is as hot as any team in the country right now. [Junior] Rob Pannell on the offensive end is as good an attackman as I’ve seen in the last 10 years. The kid is an absolute stud. He can do it all. He can dodge, he can pass, he gets his teammates involved. He just has the perfect mix of skills to really dominate the college lacrosse landscape.
What quarterfinal game intrigues you?
I’m interested to see what happens between Duke and Notre Dame. It’s a re-match of a game earlier in the year, but I don’t think you can put a lot of stock in that. For whatever reason, Duke is a team where the first couple games of the season mean absolutely nothing. It looks like they don’t even scout those games. They just want to get out there and get the kids running and get a feel of what can do what in their schemes and then make the appropriate adjustments. If you look at them in the beginning of the year against Notre Dame, Christian Walsh and Jordan Wolf were not playing attack. They were coming out of the midfield, and they weren’t getting the production that they needed. Obviously, Coach [John] Danowski realized that he needed to put those two freshmen in, and they’ve had great freshmen campaigns. It’s a re-match of the national championship, but the game is going to be significantly different than it was earlier in the year. I think if you watched the Delaware game, in the first quarter of that game, Duke was dominant. I texted a bunch of people and said, ‘Man, Duke looks phenomenal.’ Then they just kind of lost their focus a little bit and let Delaware back into the game. If Duke comes out and plays the way they did in that first quarter, I think Notre Dame’s in a whole lot of trouble.
Which team in the quarterfinals should be on upset alert?
I would say Syracuse. I think Syracuse has an unbelievable defense and has a lockdown defenseman in [senior John] Lade. [Senior] Joel White is as good as there is in the middle of the field with a long stick. [Senior goalkeeper John] Galloway is the Division I leader in wins, but Maryland’s not going to be intimidated by them. They’re going to go up and play their best game. To be honest, I don’t think either team is going to have an easy time of scoring on the other’s defense. If you watched Syracuse at the end of that game [10-4 win against Siena in the first round], Syracuse handled them, but they didn’t play as well as they had hoped. To me, the question is, who is going to run by an opposing defensive player? I don’t know that they have that consistent person. [Sophomore attackman] JoJo Marasco is good at it, but he’s not great. Their midfielders are all OK at it. They’re not the kind of middies who are going to take a pole and win that matchup. They’re very slick and very skilled, but when you have a good scheme on defense like Maryland does, it’s going to be very, very hard for them to get scoring opportunities.
Of the five finalists for the Tewaaraton Award – Syracuse senior goalkeeper John Galloway and senior long-stick midfielder Joel White, Army senior attackman Jeremy Boltus, Cornell junior attackman Rob Pannell and Virginia junior attackman Steele Stanwick – is Pannell your leading candidate to win the trophy given annually to college lacrosse’s top player?
I think it’s his award to lose at this point if you look at the body of work that he has. Nothing against Cornell’s team, but if you look at the roster, it’s not overwhelming with stud players. I think Rob makes them that much better and has taken them to the No. 2 seed on his shoulders. If you watch, every team focuses on stopping him, and yet he can’t be stopped. So in my opinion, it’s his award to lose at this point, and if he doesn’t get it, there may need to be an investigation.
Is there anyone you would have preferred to see as one of the finalists?
I think [Villanova senior long-stick midfielder] Brian Karalunas, with his body of work, should’ve been on that list. He deserved to be among the final five. I probably would’ve taken John Galloway out of it. I know John Galloway is a two-time national champion and the NCAA’s all-time leader in wins, but he’s middle-of-the-pack in terms of save percentage. That doesn’t measure the intangibles, which he has a ton of, but if a goalie’s going to be nominated for that award, I think he needs to be over 60 percent as a goalie and be a game-changer. I’m not sure John Galloway has been that this year.