Matt Ward worked with play-by-play man Mike Corey for ESPN's coverage of the NCAA Division I tournament quarterfinals at Hofstra on Saturday, watching No. 3 seed Ohio State blitz Duke, 16-11, and No. 5 seed Denver pulverize No. 4 seed Notre Dame, 16-4. The former Virginia attackman and 2006 Tewaaraton Award winner offered his opinions on all four quarterfinal games.
Were you more impressed with Ohio State's defensive display against Duke or the offensive fireworks?
I think the offensive piece was more impressive and certainly more critical. Duke had a top-10 defense, and Ohio State showed that it could win the individual matchups to create chaos for defenses in terms of sliding. I think for them, it was powerful to show teams that they're going to have a tough time now game-planning for that offense because they are so skilled with their sticks off-ball with a Canadian influence, but they're also pretty darn big and athletic. So you can't forget about the person with the ball in his stick. You're going to have to slide, and that creates easier opportunities for them to score.
Does the final score reflect how overwhelming Denver was against Notre Dame?
I think [junior faceoff specialist] Trevor Baptiste doing what he did at the faceoff X – he won 22 straight at one point – that's remarkable, and when you have 22 extra possessions and you have an offense as talented as theirs, there's not much Notre Dame could do. And those games have a tendency to get away from you if Denver is sharp, which they were. I still think in a 10-game series, Notre Dame wins three or four, but in that particular matchup on that particular day, Denver was clicking on all cylinders, and they're such a dangerous team because they are going to have the ball more than you do. There's not much you can do about it. It's just going to happen. And when they're sharp offensively and [senior attackman] Connor Cannizzaro plays the way he's supposed to play and you have some of those complementary players like [attackman] Ethan Walker who is only a freshman, that's tremendous. If you give those guys the ball time after time after time, your defense – no matter how good it is – is going to get worn down, and there's not much you can do, and that's what we saw on Saturday.
Would you agree or disagree with a sentiment that the outcome might have been different for Notre Dame if senior midfielder Sergio Perkovic (wrist) and sophomore attackman Ryder Garnsey (left foot) had been fully healthy?
In that game, I disagree. They didn't have the ball. So they were irrelevant. They could have been as healthy as they needed to be, but if you don't have the ball, what difference does it make if you're healthy or not? There wasn't much they could do. Look, they were obviously banged up. Ryder Garnsey definitely didn't have the balance and the sneaky athleticism that he usually does, but it was 16-4, and it was because [Denver] had possession. Maybe the argument could be made that if [senior defenseman] Garrett Epple and [junior long-stick midfielder] John Sexton were hurt, then maybe the outcome would have been different because they were more impactful players in the game.
Based on how well Ohio State played in nearly all facets of that game, are the Buckeyes the most complete team left in the tournament?
What I love about Ohio State is they're a team that has shown that they can win the high-scoring games and the low-scoring games, which is critically important to make a run to the national championship. With that said, I think you have to look at Denver. Aside from [Ohio State redshirt senior] Tom Carey against [Denver sophomore] Alex Ready in the cage, I like Denver. Ohio State defensively is very good, their midfield unit is young but very good, and they have the ultimate X-factor in Carey. While [senior faceoff specialist] Jake Withers is good for Ohio State, Trevor Baptiste is on another world at this point. I know that Ohio State was able to beat Denver in the regular season pretty handily [16-7 on March 19], but Denver to me looks like it's playing its best lacrosse. I watched Ohio State play and thought, 'Teams better be shaking in their boots based on that performance.' And then I watched Denver play, and I thought, 'Man, I don't know. Teams better be shaking in their boots about Denver.' And then watching Towson play, they were awesome, and what Maryland did was incredible. All of these teams have to feel pretty good about what's to come. While I thought we were going to have really good matchups in the quarterfinals, I'm very positive that we're going to have more competitive games this weekend because the four best teams are in the Final Four.
Did you view Towson's 10-7 win against No. 2 seed Syracuse as an upset?
Candidly, I had Towson winning that game. Towson is clicking on all cylinders. The defense is very good, and while Syracuse had a great regular season, they were a team where almost every game came down to one goal. So you knew their delta between their skills and the competitions' skills was pretty similar. They just had some senior experience that led to game-winning goals during the regular season. If you continue to play that way, you're going to get burned at some point. I thought Towson from the whistle was the more complete team. Physically dominating defensively, and then offensively, they were able to generate the high-quality shots, and getting a couple man-ups early certainly helped. They're playing great lacrosse, and they're a tough out for anybody given that they can play such solid defense. While Syracuse deserved to be the No. 2 seed and maybe even the No. 1 seed going into the tournament, if you had asked me which of the top seeds is more likely to lose, they were at the top of that list because they played so many teams so closely that they were never able to win games easily.
How does a team go from barely escaping with a 12-11 win on April 12 to posting a 18-9 rout on Sunday as Maryland did with No. 8 seed Albany?
It all started with them flipping the faceoff X. In the first matchup, Albany won 16 of 27, and in this matchup, Maryland won the majority of them [16 of 30]. And candidly, Albany is a young team. Regular-season lacrosse is regular-season lacrosse, but postseason lacrosse is driven by senior leaders, and Maryland has the best leaders in the country with the biggest breadth of experience. This is a team that has now made it to championship weekend every year. I was texting with my buddies from the 2006 class, and I said, 'Man, their offense looks a lot like what we did.' They have so many people that can beat you in so many ways, and [senior attackman] Matt Rambo plays his best lacrosse in the biggest games. He was dominant both physically and emotionally for that team, and you don't see that very often from offensive players. Early on, you could tell that he was putting that team on his back and they were going to win that game no matter what. For him as an attackman to represent that type of player, right now when you look at the Tewaaraton Award, he's the leader in terms of what he's been able to do for Maryland. They have to feel pretty good about what they're putting on the field right now. They obviously have a tough matchup against Denver, but I still think Maryland at this point is a team that you're nervous to play against and is the odds-on favorite to win it all.
If Denver defeats Maryland on Saturday, does Baptiste become the first faceoff specialist to win the Tewaaraton Award?
He's winning 90 percent of his faceoffs in the tournament so far. If he continues that trend and Denver makes a run to the national championship, if he doesn't win it, a faceoff person is never winning it. When you watch that Denver game, that offense was great, but what made that offense great was getting the ball time and time and time again, and that all starts with Trevor Baptiste. They have great wings, but he's doing it himself. He's winning the ball to himself on almost all of those faceoffs, and there's nothing you can do to game-plan against that. I certainly think that our team winning the championship [in 2006] partially led me to winning the award, and I think that will be a big part of this season. I don't discredit what [Loyola Maryland sophomore attackman] Pat Spencer and [Albany junior attackman] Connor Fields and [Yale junior attackman] Ben Reeves did during the regular season, but I think when you look at the players left in the tournament, they're the ones with the best odds.
And Maryland is your choice to win the national championship on Monday?
They're the team in my gut where it's time for them to break through. This is a storied program that has a storied history, and this is a storied senior class. They unfortunately have just been on the wrong side of some things in the national championship game. The first two times they were there, they were underdogs, and last year, they were the favorite. This year, I would imagine that if they make it to the championship game, they will probably be the favorite again. They have the experience from having their players having been there before. If you think about it, Ohio State and Towson haven't been to the final four in some time. So it's going to be new. It's not going to be like any other week. For Denver and Maryland, they've been there more recently, and I think they're going to feel a bit more comfortable in the surrounding environment. So I think the winner of that game will be in a pretty strong position.