ESPN analyst Mark Dixon, who provided color commentary for No. 7 Loyola’s 8-4 victory over No. 13 Johns Hopkins on Saturday, will handle play-by-play duties for the championship final of the America East tournament at Stony Brook this Saturday and then add analysis for the title game of the Ivy League tournament the next day. The former Blue Jays midfielder, who can be followed on Twitter @Dixonlacrosse, discussed No. 3 Notre Dame’s candidacy for the No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, three teams that could challenge the Fighting Irish for that honor, and No. 16 Lehigh’s potency in the tournament.
I thought Notre Dame was a lock for the top seed in the NCAA tournament. How much does Saturday’s 10-4 loss to No. 11 Syracuse hurt the Fighting Irish’s bid for that honor?
I don’t think it hurts them monumentally. I have not seen the new RPIs. I think the new RPIs will come out today, and I think Notre Dame is still going to be in the top four. So I don’t think the loss to Syracuse is crippling. Now if they lose in the semifinals of the Big East tournament, that might be tough. That might knock them out of the top four. But again, they’re playing Syracuse who is in the NCAA tournament. I think Notre Dame is in the NCAA tournament as well. But I think the body of work that the Irish has put together is pretty impressive. So right now, if the tournament were to start today, I think they’re a top four seed. If they lose in the semifinals, we’ll see what that does. If they beat Syracuse, obviously that’s going to help them a lot. But then if they lose in the championship to either Georgetown or Villanova, they will have lost to a team that is going to be at best .500. So that could hurt them. So I think the loss to Syracuse isn’t crippling in terms of seeding for the NCAA tournament, but I think the Big East tournament potentially could be.
Which team should be the No. 1 seed in your opinion?
I think [No. 2] North Carolina could be the No. 1 seed depending on who does what this coming weekend. The Tar Heels are the [Atlantic Coast Conference] champions and No. 1 now in all of the polls. They were No. 1 in the [United States Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association] coaches poll last week, and now they’re No. 1 in the Inside Lacrosse media poll. Look, rankings don’t mean a thing. It’s all of those other criteria, but with the way Carolina has played and the wins they have now against [No. 1] Duke, [No. 4] Maryland – although they did lose to Notre Dame and they did lose to UMass – North Carolina could be the No. 1 seed. You also could be looking at Syracuse being the No. 1 seed. Let’s say [No. 5] Cornell and Notre Dame stumble and Syracuse wins the Big East [tournament], Syracuse could be the No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. And then you have Cornell, and they can be No. 1. Their RPI last week was five. So I think it’s so tough because so much can happen. Who thought Siena was going to beat [No. 10] Albany last week? Who thought Virginia was going to beat Maryland in the ACC [tournament]? There are just so many upsets this late in the season that I think it’s just difficult to gauge.
One team that has already punched its ticket to the NCAA tournament is No. 16 Lehigh, which captured the Patriot League tournament and the automatic qualifier. How dangerous are the Mountain Hawks since the return of sophomore goalkeeper Matt Poillon on March 9 from an unspecified injury?
I think they’re a very dangerous team for two reasons. One, the defense has played incredibly well – this weekend in particular against two teams that have very, very good scorers. When you look at Colgate, they have [senior attackman and 2012 Tewaaraton Award winner] Peter Baum and [sophomore attackman] Ryan Walsh and when you look at [No. 18 Bucknell], they’ve got [sophomore midfielder] David Dickson and [freshman midfielder Thomas] Flibotte and some other guys that can really put the ball in the back of the net. They held them to seven goals for Colgate and five for Bucknell. So that’s impressive. That defense of [junior defenseman] Ty Souders, [senior defenseman] Baxter Lanius, [senior defenseman] Mike Noone and Matt Poillon in the goal is just terrific. The second thing that I think makes them that much more dangerous is they’ve got a year under their belt of being to the NCAAs. So they know what it means. They know what Selection Sunday is going to look like, and they know what the media is going to look like, and they know what practice is going to look like. So they’ve got that under their belts, and I think those two factors make Lehigh an incredibly dangerous team going into the NCAAs.
There are a few conference tournaments too close to call. Some are saying that the semifinal of Notre Dame and Syracuse is going to produce the winner of the Big East tournament. Fair assessment?
I would disagree. Villanova beat Syracuse earlier this year, and they’re a very dangerous ballclub. Georgetown lost to Syracuse by one goal and they started that game with only seven men on the field [as punishment for players violating team rules] and [Hoyas coach] Kevin Warne took a penalty. So no, absolutely not. Notre Dame beat Villanova [on April 20] after the Wildcats got up 2-0, and they beat Georgetown the week before when Georgetown got up 4-0. I think in this day and age to say that the winner of Notre Dame-Syracuse is going to coast to the Big East championship is ill-advised. The interesting thing is, when you look at Notre Dame and Syracuse, look at who their losses are to. When you’re talking about Syracuse, they’ve lost to Villanova, a sub-.500 team; Hobart, another sub-.500 team; and Albany, which is a terrific ballclub. But I think they’re a combined 23-19. Notre Dame lost to Hofstra, they lost to St. John’s and Syracuse. So what I’m trying to say is, the big games, they’re winning. It’s the quote-unquote not big games, the unexpected teams knocking them off. Anything is possible in this lacrosse season, but also in the Big East. On paper, yeah, Notre Dame and Syracuse are the better teams, but the game is not played on paper. This isn’t fantasy lacrosse. They actually have to go onto the field and play the game. So by no means do I think the winner of Notre Dame-Syracuse is a lock to win on Saturday in the championship game.
Is Cornell the heavy favorite in the Ivy League tournament?
Absolutely, and for good reason. I don’t know if there’s anybody that can defend [fifth-year senior attackman] Rob Pannell. And they have depth in scoring, and they have balance. They have [sophomore midfielder] Connor Buczek and [senior attackman] Steve Mock and [sophomore attackman] Matt Donovan. And the thing I really like about Cornell is defensively, they’ve shored things up. If you rewind to a year ago, they lost to Brown and then they got blown out by Princeton in the regular-season finale and then Yale spanked them in the Ivy League tournament. It was the defense that really did them in, but [senior A.J.] Fiore in the goal is playing well, [senior] Thomas Keith is a quality long-stick middie, [senior defenseman] Jason Noble is a potential first-team All American on defense. So I really love the way that they’re playing, and I think they’re a heavy favorite. If you’re looking for a dark horse, [No. 19] Penn is a team offensively that can put some pressure on teams. I love their midfield. The offense seems to have gone south in the second half of the season, and not only did they back into the tournament, but they backed into the No. 3 seed. In order to qualify for the tournament, Harvard had to lose – which they did by one goal to [No. 14] Yale – and then [No. 12] Princeton losing to Cornell gave them the No. 3 seed. And you can’t sleep on Yale either. They’ve got probably the best faceoff man in the Ivy League in [junior] Dylan Levings, and they’ve got a senior defense that has been around for a long time. But I don’t see anybody stopping Cornell in the Ivy League tournament.
In the Colonial Athletic Association tournament, do you think it’s going to come down to No. 9 Penn State and No. 15 Drexel?
I think Penn State is the heavy favorite. They just ripped through the CAA. The closest team that played them was Towson. UMass played them tough as well. But Penn State right now is rolling. They’re getting midfield scoring, which is the one piece of the puzzle that they didn’t have. [Junior goalkeeper] Austin Kaut is playing at a really high level. They’re playing with a tremendous amount of confidence. I love the coaching job that Brian Voelker has done at Drexel. He gets my vote for CAA Coach of the Year. I think he’s a candidate nationally if they can make the NCAA tournament. When you look at what they lost defensively from a year ago – both short-stick D-middies, all three starting defensemen and a four-year goalie – and then in the preseason, he lost his best attackman [senior Brendan Glynn] who was hit by a car and then [sophomore midfielder] Mason Pynn, a Canadian, goes home because his dad dies and he doesn’t come back to school. But still, they’re the No. 2 seed in the CAA, which is a strong conference. I do think it will come down to Penn State and Drexel. I think Drexel beats Towson and I think Penn State handles UMass. That’s the Norris Division of college. It’s blue collar, and they just beat the hell out of each other.
Can Hartford, UMBC or Stony Brook upset Albany in the America East tournament?
That would be monumental. I don’t think anyone has gotten within five goals of Albany. This weekend, [junior attackman] Miles Thompson had 14 points against Stony Brook [last Saturday]. That’s insane. Those guys are tremendous. I think [sophomore attackman] Lyle Thompson is a candidate for Player of the Year. Right now, I don’t see anybody coming within 10 goals. But you’ve got UMBC-Hartford in the other semifinal. [Retrievers] coach [Don] Zimmerman coached [Great Danes coach] Scott Marr at Hopkins, and they’ve coached against each other now for a number of years. If any team is going to stop Albany, I think it’s going to be UMBC. But I don’t know if UMBC is going to get past Hartford in the semifinals. I think Hartford, UMBC and Stony Brook are very, very close, but Albany is just head and shoulders above.
You briefly mentioned Coach of the Year. Who would be your choice nationally?
I think you have to look at John Desko at Syracuse and the job that he’s done. When you lose [junior attackman] Nicky Galasso in the preseason and then you lose [sophomore defenseman] Brandon Mullins after the Virginia game, I think you have to look at John Desko. I think you also have to look at Brian Voelker at Drexel. I think another coach that is going to warrant consideration is Joe Breschi at North Carolina. That’s a team that didn’t start the year great, losing to UMass and they had their annual loss to Duke. They’ve just really put things together here late in the season. They’re one of the hottest teams in the country. I like the job that Joe Breschi has done there with the way that defense has come along. That defense was porous at the beginning of the season, but he made the goalie switch. [Freshman] Kieran Burke has been great. Granted, they almost coughed up a nine-goal lead at home to Duke [in an ACC tournament semifinal], but at least they didn’t lose that game. So I think Joe Breschi is in that conversation, too.
The list of 24 nominees for the Tewaaraton Award was released Friday night. Any snubs?
I think [junior attackman Mark] Cockerton from Virginia should be on it. I don’t think he would be in the top five, but that was an omission. Other than that, I think they did a pretty good job of getting it right.