ESPN analyst Mark Dixon was in the network’s studio in Charlotte during the broadcast of all four NCAA tournament quarterfinal games this past weekend. The former Johns Hopkins midfielder, who can be followed on Twitter via his account @Dixonlacrosse and will be a color analyst for SiriusXM Radio for the Division I semifinals and final this weekend, provided his perspective on the strength of the Atlantic Coast Conference, the possibility of a national champion from the Midwest, and his pick for the 2014 NCAA champion.
Was there a game that stood out the most to you?
All of them stood out in different ways. I think [seventh-seeded] Maryland coming out and having such a dominating offensive performance was pretty impressive against a great faceoff man and a great goaltender. [Sixth-seeded] Notre Dame’s ability to come back on Albany was great to watch. [Top-seeded] Duke was just dominant physically and athletically against Johns Hopkins, and [fifth-seeded] Denver completely dissected Drexel with such precision. Much like the Maryland game where you thought the Maryland-Bryant game was going to go 50-50 on faceoffs, you thought Denver-Drexel was probably going to be 70-30 in favor of Drexel, and it didn’t work out that way and when Denver was able to get those possessions, they were just dominant. At the end of the day, all four winners were very impressive in their own way.
Three of the four semifinalists hail from the Atlantic Coast Conference. Does that confirm what the lacrosse world knew all along about that conference’s strength?
I think it does. I think a lot of the naysayers were happy with themselves after the first week when North Carolina, Virginia and Syracuse all lost, saying that the ACC maybe isn’t as strong as we thought it was going to be. They fell to an independent, the Big East and the Northeast Conference. But I think this weekend, when the chips were down, this was the money round and Maryland was dominant over the same team that Syracuse played. Duke was dominant over Johns Hopkins, and Notre Dame came back against Albany, a team that was just playing with so much momentum. So I think it was affirmation that at least for one year, we saw a super-conference in lacrosse.
Can you put into perspective Duke’s run of eight consecutive Final Four appearances, which is far shy of the NCAA record of 22 held by Syracuse?
I think it’s incredibly impressive when you consider that they’ve done it in a 16-team field. Remember, they made it to the championship game in ’05 and then the ’06 season was canceled. So you could say that it’s nine straight, but eight straight is still pretty darn impressive. Syracuse at 22 is amazing and I don’t think that will ever be replicated again. But they did that a lot in a 12-team field, and in a 12-team field, they usually only had to win one game. Duke has to win two under what they’ve been playing with and to see them go to eight straight – especially in this day and age where maybe seven or eight years ago, you had four or five teams that were legitimate contenders and now you have eight to 10 teams that are legitimate national champion contenders – it’s an incredible accomplishment in this time of growth for the sport and in this time of parity.
With Denver in one side of the bracket and Notre Dame in the other, could this be the year that a team outside of the Eastern seaboard is crowned?
How wild would it be to have Denver versus Notre Dame? Denver’s a program that was always on the cusp under Jamie Munro and just never broke through. Now that they’ve broken through in terms of making the national semifinals, look at the state of Colorado. Air Force made the NCAA tournament this year, Colorado State and University of Colorado are pretty impressive MCLA [Men’s Collegiate Lacrosse Association] teams. Colorado College was in the Division III tournament, and then of course the World Games are in Denver and you’ve got the Denver Outlaws [of Major League Lacrosse]. So it’s just such an explosion of the sport in Denver, which really is building a mecca out West. And if you look at Notre Dame, they used to almost get a mercy spot in the NCAA tournament. Now they’re one of the elite programs in the nation. So I think it’s pretty wild when you consider that since they’re on opposite sides and have as good a chance as anybody, you could be talking about Notre Dame versus Denver in a national final.
So who do you like in each semifinal?
I think both games are incredibly intriguing, but with my track record, whichever team I pick is going to lose. Duke-Denver, that’s a Duke team that beat the Pioneers in February for the first time in a couple seasons. … Denver really likes to pack it in. They have an incredible defensive system. Duke, you can score goals on them if you have the ball, if you have possession, and no one is better at dissecting defenses than the Denver Pioneers. And then you have to factor in the loss of [senior attackman] Josh Dionne [to a right knee injury] for Duke if he’s not able to play next weekend. When you roll all of that up, that’s a pick-em. But I think with [Blue Devils senior faceoff specialist] Brendan Fowler always saving his best for last and the way that Duke offense just pressures you, I’ll probably go with the Duke Blue Devils in the first game. Notre Dame-Maryland, I just want them both to play fast and play aggressive offensively because they are fun to watch when they get after it. When you look at this game, I think offensively, [Terps senior midfielder Mike] Chanenchuk and [Fighting Irish sophomore attackman Matt] Kavanagh have stepped up big with game-winners. Those guys are just legit. They’re leaders and prime-time players. If you look at the defense, I think Maryland has the advantage on defense, and Maryland has the advantage in goaltending. [Fighting Irish senior faceoff specialist] Liam O’Connor got abused by [Terps junior] Charlie Raffa, but Raffa’s banged up. I don’t know to what extent, and I guess we’ll find out on Saturday. But with [junior Nick] Ossello and O’Connor as a two-headed monster, I think you might see more of them. I think Notre Dame just has a big ol’ chip on their shoulder. They beat Albany, but everybody continues to talk about the Thompsons. So I think Notre Dame feels like they’re not getting their just due. So in a slight edge, I think I’ll take Notre Dame.
And your pick for national champion?
If history is any indication, Notre Dame is going to beat them because in every rematch in the ACC this year, the team that lost the first game has won the second game. But I think it’s awfully hard to go against Duke right now.
Is Albany junior attackman Lyle Thompson still your choice to win the Tewaaraton Award even if Duke senior attackman Jordan Wolf explodes this weekend?
I think Lyle Thompson is your runaway choice for the Tewaaraton. It’s just been an incredible season that he’s put up. He’s shattered records, and I know that this is based on play on the field, but when you look at what he’s brought to the game in terms of energizing the youth and the visibility of the sport, you’re talking about features on ABC News with Diane Sawyer, the New York Times front page, ESPN. This is as good as it gets in terms of publicizing our game for all of the right reasons. So I think Lyle is your winner. I’m a little disappointed that we’ve got guys like Mike Chanenchuk and Matt Kavanagh making runs here and they won’t be among the five finalists. But at the end of the day, it’s Lyle Thompson. No disrespect to Jordan Wolf because he’s an amazing player and he could very well walk away with the national championship, but I think Lyle Thompson is going to be your Tewaaraton Award winner.
With combined attendance at the quarterfinals at Hofstra University and the University of Delaware exceeding 20,000 this past weekend, how optimistic are you that the crowd at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore will help assuage concerns about the sport’s popularity?
The quarterfinals up in Long Island, Long Island always does a great job of hosting lacrosse, and Hofstra is a great venue and you saw the sellout there. Delaware had a nice crowd as well. But there are a couple of things. One, it’s a holiday weekend, and the games are televised. So how much does that play into it? Also, you’ve got three teams that don’t really travel well in Denver, Duke and Notre Dame although Duke and Notre Dame – especially Notre Dame – have a national presence. So maybe that puts more fannies in the seats. And it’s disappointing that the Orioles and Major League Baseball have scheduled first pitch a half hour before faceoff of a national championship collegiate event in an NFL stadium right next door. There are a bunch of things working against us, but what we have here is an incredible product, incredible athletes, great teams in an amazing environment. The weather looks like it’s going to be terrific. So yeah, I’m optimistic about getting some good attendance.