ESPN analyst Mark Dixon took a spin through the 18-team field of the NCAA tournament before joining The Baltimore Sun for this Q&A. The former Johns Hopkins midfielder discussed surprises in the bracket, the debate over the final at-large spot, and the most exciting first-round game.
Who was your overall impression of the field?
I think the selection committee did a pretty good job. I really don't have any issues with the way the criteria are framed. It comes down to RPI [Ratings Percentage Index], strength of schedule, quality wins, all that good stuff, and I think the committee for the most part got it right. I know there's some conversation about Penn being at No. 4, but with an RPI of 8, you can't fault that team for doing what they had to do and the numbers are strong. I really don't have a problem with the way things shook out.
Were there any surprises in the bracket?
When I saw Denver at No. 5, I thought, "Wow, that's pretty high." But when you look at their RPI, they're [No.] 7, and they went ahead of Notre Dame, whom they beat and Notre Dame got [No.] 6. And they went ahead of Virginia, which ended up with No. 8. Denver at 5 at first blush was a little surprising, but other than that, no. I know a lot of people are saying, "Look at Loyola. They've won 15 in a row, they have been No. 1 for six weeks now. How are they not No. 1?" I know they've beaten Duke, but the head-to-head is not the only criteria. There's RPI, strength of schedule, quality wins, and when you look at Duke's body of work, they've got seven really, really nice wins over Notre Dame, Syracuse, Carolina, Denver, Penn, Virginia and Harvard – all teams that made the tournament. I think at the end of the day, that propelled them up to No. 1, and Syracuse is kind of in a similar vein with some quality wins over Duke and Notre Dame. I think at the end of the day, I thought the committee did a pretty good job.
Do you agree with the committee's decision to invite Harvard over Hofstra for the final at-large spot?
I was mildly surprised, but not exponentially surprised. At the end of the day, Harvard ended up with a 16 RPI and Hofstra was a 14. The wins for Harvard just kind of carried them. Even though Hofstra had the win over Cornell, Harvard had the same win. And this is where people will say, 'Did they look at losses? I never knew they looked at losses.' Yeah, they look at losses. I think Bucknell last year was hurt by a bad loss. So when you look at Hofstra, I think what hurt them at the end of the day was the loss to Marquette and St. John's, two teams that didn't make the tournament, and I think both of those teams had RPIs lower than 21. So at the end of the day, we're not talking about an RPI of 7 versus an RPI of 16. It was 14 and 16, and RPI is just one criteria. You have to look at the whole body of work, and at the end of the day, I guess the committee felt that Harvard's body of work was more worthy of a slot than Hofstra's.
Which seeded team has the toughest first-round matchup?
I think it's Denver versus North Carolina. That is a monumental game right there to have in the first round, and I know we saw that a couple years ago in Chapel Hill when the two teams met and of course last year in the quarterfinals. So to have those two high-octane offenses playing in the first round, I think it's great. I think the other intriguing matchup is Loyola versus Albany. That could be a game where it comes down to the wire or Loyola could blow them out. I think the toughest marquee first-round game is Denver-North Carolina.
So do you think sixth-seeded Denver has the toughest path to the Final Four at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore on May 24?
I think you've got to look at Virginia-Hopkins as having a tough road because they're got Duke potentially sitting in the quarterfinal. The Blue Devils have been to seven consecutive championship weekends. And that's a terrific first-round matchup as well in Virginia-Hopkins. It was an overtime game back in March and these are two teams with such a rich history, and both didn't make the tournament last year. So for them to meet in the first round, I think that's a pretty sweet first-round matchup as well. But to have Duke sitting in the quarterfinal is a tough matchup for anybody. You're looking at the winner of the Denver-Carolina game getting the winner of [No. 4 seed] Penn-Drexel, and Penn and Drexel have had terrific seasons and are talented teams, but you have to think that the winner of Denver-Carolina could have the lightest second-round game to get to Baltimore.