ESPN analyst Matt Ward provided color analysis for No. 4 Notre Dame's 11-9 victory over No. 7 Virginia on Saturday. The former Virginia attackman and 2006 Tewaaraton Award winner, who will help cover the Cavaliers' game at No. 5 and 2014 NCAA champion Duke on April 12, shared his observations from the Fighting Irish's win, No. 16 Johns Hopkins' hopes for an at-large berth to the NCAA tournament, and the separation between the top five teams in Division I and the rest of the country.
What did you take away from Notre Dame's win at Virginia?
The thing I took away is that Notre Dame is absolutely one of the top four teams in the country. They're going to be a team that is going to make a run for Memorial Day – this year moreso than most years. When you look at Notre Dame, they're a team that has always kind of won from a defensive perspective. They have a system that works, they know when to double-team, they always have someone on your gloves, and they communicate really well. Last year, they added a piece with [junior] Matt Kavanagh, the dynamic attackman. But I think for them, the thing that is really important is the fact that [sophomore] Sergio Perkovic is dominant coming out of the midfield. So they can really attack you on the offensive end and not just from the attack spot, but also from the midfield. So when you get Notre Dame with the defense that they do and an offense that can beat you from all over the place, they're going to be dangerous.
With Virginia losing junior attackman James Pannell after suffering a season-ending knee injury on Thursday, what was your assessment of the Cavaliers?
I think when you look at Virginia, the games are kind of unfolding as you think they would. Virginia is just really young and inexperienced, especially on faceoffs and at the defensive end, and I think that's been evident in the slow starts. And when you're a team that doesn't win a lot of faceoffs, that makes it hard for the offense to overcome. You see them get down 7-0 to Notre Dame and [No. 1] Syracuse [on March 1], and it's not unexpected because defensively, they're a work in progress. They're not getting beat one-on-one because they have really good athletes and defensive players. But what takes time to gel is the communication, the understanding of how to work together, and that's the area they need the most improvement in.
Was there a team that underwhelmed you this past weekend?
I would say Syracuse. When I watched Syracuse play Virginia, I was like, 'If Syracuse wins faceoffs, there's not a team that can stop them.' They just have too many offensive weapons. But the last couple games, they got off to a slow start against St. John's and again against Johns Hopkins. That's something that the best teams shouldn't do. You need to build on your confidence. For them, with the skill and experience they have compared to the teams they're playing, you're supposed to jump on teams early, not let them get a lead, let them get into the game, and then try to overcome those goals. Syracuse is probably the best team in the country right now, but if they want to make a run and continue to build as a team, they can't get off to these slow starts.
No. 16 Johns Hopkins is 3-4. How worried should that program and its fans be?
It's going to be hard for Johns Hopkins to make the tournament when you look at the Big Ten. I think there's one team that is going to make it into the field, and right now, I think [No. 8] Maryland is that team. Of course, you can win the conference, and Johns Hopkins could still very well do that. But they're 3-4 with no marquee wins, and those wins are going to be harder and harder to come by as the season progresses. They need to turn this thing around pretty quickly here and get a couple wins. I always look at the Virginia-Johns Hopkins game [on Saturday] as a must-win for both of those teams. I think for whichever team loses that game, they're going to have a tough time getting into the tournament as an at-large team. Obviously, if you win the ACC or the Big Ten tournament, that changes things. But for the at-large, next week's game is really a must-win – probably moreso for Johns Hopkins, but definitely for Virginia as well.
With Saturday's 13-11 setback at Ohio State, No. 3 Denver has dropped two of its last three games. How concerned should coach Bill Tierney be?
I don't think he's going to be that concerned. I think he knows the team that he has. He's a coach that likes to build throughout the course of the season. And they beat Notre Dame last week. So when you beat a top-four team, you can't be that down. And the other loss was to [No. 2] North Carolina, a very, very talented team. I think the Ohio State game is definitely one that got away from them because they are a more talented team than Ohio State. They just need to regroup and figure things out. It's a long season, and I have to imagine that he still feels good about the squad that he has. He's just got to get them playing their best lacrosse a little later in gthe season.
Who are your leading candidates for the Tewaaraton Award?
You have to look at [Albany senior attackman] Lyle Thompson. He had 12 points on Saturday – two goals and 10 assists [in the No. 11 Great Danes' 17-15 win against Stony Brook] – and his name actually hasn't been broadcast that much this year. He's had a little bit slower start than he's had in the past because he's been a little banged-up. I also think Matt Kavanagh from Notre Dame is the second-best player in the country. And you have to add [Duke junior midfielder] Myles Jones. When you first watched him in college, you thought he was going to be a head-down, right-handed dodger who was bigger than everyone, but wasn't going to be that skilled. The next thing you know, he's shooting left-handed on the run and scoring. And now, he's feeding. He had three goals and five assists [in Saturday's 15-13 win] against Georgetown. If you're that skilled that you can score for yourself and feed, that's impressive. Outside of the attack position, he's someone that's going to make a name for himself. Between those three guys, I would say it's a toss-up right now.
Is there a game next weekend you're most interested in watching?
Syracuse-Duke is going to be a fun game to watch. It'll be interesting to see what happens at the faceoff X. Whoever wins the majority of possessions is probably going to be in the best position to win that game. They're two of the best offenses in the country. I want to see how Duke can handle some of the best teams in the country and how well they are progressing. Right now, I think it's really a five-team race when you look at Syracuse, Notre Dame, North Carolina, Denver and Duke. I don't know if there are any other teams that can match up with them. Maryland's defense is great, but I just don't know if they have the offensive weapons to contend with those guys. Defenses can take you a long way, but you've got to be able to score some goals, and I just don't know if Maryland is there yet.
Could No. 6 Yale or No. 7 Cornell break into that top five?
I don't see those teams as a top five program, but what I would say is that the Ivy League is incredibly deep this year. If you look at Yale, Cornell, [No. 12] Princeton, [No. 18] Brown, those teams can all win the Ivy League. It will be fun to see how that all unfolds. I just don't know if Cornell is there athletically yet to keep up with the bigger teams. Yale is still a work in progress. They have a lot of talent, but I don't know if they have the depth and athleticism to kind of run with those top-five teams at this point in the season.