Friday, April 3, 2009

they need to fix this lacrosse mess

Problem: ACC lacrosse is silly.

Solution: Complain about it for the next several paragraphs.

Here's the deal. As you know, only one-third of the ACC competes in men's lacrosse, which makes for a four-team league. The absurdity of this was highlighted to me as I watched the part of the Maryland game last Saturday that I actually remembered to see live. The announcers pointed out in the span of a few short minutes that, 1) Maryland could clinch the regular season title with a win, 2) UVA was playing its first conference game, and 3) UVA was playing its only conference home game. This was on ESPN2, one of the very few regular season games all year to be broadcast to a national audience, so ESPN was peppering in Lacrosse 101 for those new to the game and its rules. Rules, hell. Folks are accustomed to a football world where teams are more or less neatly divided up into conferences of fairly even numbers and schedules are set fairly rigidly. They'll be just as confused by the concept of a game where one team is playing its conference opener and another is playing for the championship as they are by the idea that you can send the ball out of bounds and still retain possession.

"Regular season title" takes on even less meaning when it's distinctly possible that three out of four teams could all go 2-1 and share the title, which is exactly what will happen if we beat UNC and lose to Duke. To top it all off, the ACC has no autobid to the tournament because you need six teams for that. Not that it matters; we all go anyway, but still.

Around the country, the landscape is confusing. There are eight conferences. Six of them are basically the same as their counterpart basketball conferences minus those teams that don't sponsor lacrosse. The other two are glommed together from the misfits - there's something called the Great Western Lacrosse League, the concept of which is basically "the five lacrosse-playing schools west of Pittsburgh plus one geographically insane patsy who's there to get us an autobid." Also, most of these conferences are lousy, which isn't going to change when the GWLL folds next year thanks to the advent of Big East lacrosse (Syracuse, Notre Dame, and five schools that aren't much good at lacrosse.) Then there's the ECAC which is not even close to the same thing as the hockey ECAC, and consists of teams from the following basketball conferences: 3 Big East, 1 Big Ten, 1 A-10, 1 D-III, and 2 MAAC (which is a lacrosse conference in its own right.) At least until next year when practically the whole membership shuffles. Our non-conference schedule this year consists of the following teams: Drexel, Bryant, Stony Brook, Mount St. Mary's, Syracuse, VMI, Cornell, Vermont, Towson, Johns Hopkins, Dartmouth. Quick - name their conferences.

But back to the ACC. This four-team stuff is crazy and undesirable, in my mind. It causes several sucky situations:

- It sucks that an ACC regular season title means practically nothing.
- It sucks that losing in the ACC tournament means practically nothing - you're still going to the NCAAs.
- It sucks that UVA fans and students only get to go see one lousy conference game in Charlottesville. Two, sometimes.
- It sucks mildly that the ACC has no autobid. It's weird.
- It sucks that we don't get to play (read: beat the hell out of) VT in lacrosse because they have no team.

The too-easy solution would be to have ACC teams actually add lacrosse. If half our schedule is going to be games against opponents against whom it's nothing to deposit a 16-goal whupsticking, they may as well be against rivals and teams we care about beating, not Towson and Mount St. Mary's. If four more teams would add the sport, we'd have an eight-team league and something worth winning. They'd probably suck at first for several years, but they'd probably be respectable within a few years and the league would actually be interesting.

The first problem with this is that three teams in the league aren't in lacrosse territory and would have a tough time with it, so you're basically limited to BC, VT, Wake, and NC State. The other problem is Title IX. Don't get me started on this, it's a rant for another day. It makes it tough for schools to justify it financially, though, because they'd also have to find a way to level out funding for women's sports. Great shame, because BC fans would love to have men's lacrosse (they have women's) and they're not getting it.

The other solution would be to do like we did before: expand. Oh, wouldn't the Big East just absolutely love it if we did to them in lacrosse what we did to them in football and ganked all their best teams. That's probably not a good solution though. What would work better would be to cherry-pick some of the better teams from a few of the other conferences, plus invite Johns Hopkins. An eight-team superconference of UVA, UNC, Duke, Maryland, JHU, Navy, UMBC, and Loyola would be a terrific spectacle. There'd be real, honest-to-god pressure in the conference games because all of these teams are capable of beating each other, but there isn't room in the NCAA tournament for all of them. The regional rivalries would be spectacular.

Now, there's something to be said for the ACC being the ACC. Ohio State is kind of in a weird position, for example, because there's no such thing as Big Ten hockey or Big Ten lacrosse, so they participate in three conferences. And don't even try to fathom the bizarre cross-pollination between the Big East, A-10, CAA, Patriot League, and Lord knows who else. Still, I'd trade the "ACC tradition" (if there is one) of ACC teams being ACC only, in exchange for making lacrosse really interesting like this. Not that it's not interesting now, but it's mainly interesting because we're really really good. It could be better.

I dunno. Maybe this is an answer to a question that nobody but me is asking. Still - that eight-team league above is tantalizing, isn't it?

Quick notes:

- The baseball team can fulfill the goal I set for it of 11-5 in ACC play by Easter Sunday, but they will absolutely have to sweep Maryland this weekend to get there. It's doable, and they'd better, because sweeping Georgia Tech next weekend is not.

- With a 12th place finish for the women and a 9th place for the men in the NCAA swimming championships, the UVA swimming program as a whole is top-ten in the nation this year. Many many congratulations to the team and kudos to Mark Bernardino for the job he's doing building this powerhouse. Point-wise, though, there is a looooong way to go to catch up to the West Coast and southern powerhouses. If you combine all the points gained from both the men's and women's championships, the gap between seven and eight is positively ginormous. Still, the other ACC programs can't touch us.

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