Wednesday, April 20, 2011


Those people who say they really want to see the sport of lacrosse (and specifically men's D-I lacrosse) expanded beyond its traditional stomping grounds, and mean it, are getting their wish whether they know it or not.  The last year or two is undeniable proof.  Consider the evidence:

- For the first time in the history of the event, in 2010 the NCAA D-I championship game included a team (Notre Dame) from a state that does not border the Atlantic.  Teams from just six states had ever participated, and three of those states only ever sent one team.  And one of those (UMass) has only played once.

- That same Notre Dame team has a legitimate shot to snag the #1 seed in this year's tournament and in any case has proven themselves not a fluke.

- It's possible, even likely, that this year's tournament will play a game west of the Mississippi for the first time ever (hosted by Denver.)

- In the past three years, men's D-I lacrosse has begun in the states of Florida (Jacksonville), Georgia (Mercer), and Michigan (Detroit.)  In 2013, the state of Wisconsin will join the fun when Marquette makes the jump from the MCLA to Division I.  It's also all but official that Michigan will join the fray, likely in 2013 as well.

The evidence piles up, and you can see the effects.  It's not all roses, of course.  Sometimes lacrosse gets dropped.  Presbyterian is dropping the sport after a short experimentation with it.  A shame, because the reasoning is supposedly the lack of Big South conference affiliation with the sport, right as some chatter begins about the possibility of a conference of southern schools; there are six (the minimum number for an NCAA bid) besides the ACC powers, but losing Presbyterian makes five.

But I digress, as I always do.  There are two perfectly extant conferences new to the game - the Big East and Northeast conferences recently found enough members to form up lacrosse leagues and get autobids to the Biggish Dance, which will take effect next year.  That'll mean eight instead of six autobids, one of which will go to Syracuse for the foreseeable future and one of which will add a crap team to the mix.  If the NEC had their autobid this year it'd probably go to Mount St. Mary's, which UVA dispatched from last year's tournament in dominating fashion.

Eight autobids means fewer at-larges, of course, and the numbers are nearly there to support even more conferences in the sport.  The only negative aspect of the aforementioned southern conference would've been to leave the MAAC one shy of autobid status - and the dream is not dead since High Point will start play soon too.  If (and more likely "when") Michigan makes the jump to D-I, there are enough schools to form a true western conference without even needing the Big East schools.  This time the ECAC would be left with five, but they could just add Mercer.  More likely is that Michigan just joins the ECAC rather than everyone doing this the hard way, but still.  Further expansion - not just of teams, but addition of conferences - is not that far off.

Which means the NCAA tournament will expand, too.  Just speculation on my part, but I don't think it's idle speculation.  NCAA bylaws seem to call for more than 50% of a non-basketball tournament field to be comprised of conference autobids...

a sports committee must award, when a sufficient number of applications for automatic qualification exist, at least 50 percent of the championship field to conferences that meet automatic-qualification criteria and provide a play-in criteria. The remaining 50 percent of the championship field shall be reserved for at-large teams.
...but that's so obviously not the case in all these other sports that in reality it's basically the other way around.  (For example, 30 autobids and 34 at-larges in baseball, 22 autobids and 26 at-larges in soccer, etc.)  The NCAA always prioritizes things like "getting people interested in the tournament" over silly bylaws, which makes sense on some level, so I don't think it's likely that they'll allow Mount St. Mary's to steal a spot from North Carolina or Johns Hopkins.  Much more likely: expansion to 20 or 24 teams.  Given the choice I'd prefer 24 for symmetry's sake, but relatively speaking that's a huge tournament - it's almost 40% of the teams.

As exciting as this expansion of the sport is for the sport, it's a little bit of a storm cloud for the established programs.  We've already seen one example of a new program's rise at the direct expense of an old-guard team: when Bill Tierney made the jump to Denver from Princeton, he seems to have taken all of Princeton's mojo with him.  Denver is likely to earn a seed and the right to host a first-round game; Princeton won't be in the tournament barring a major upset run in the Ivy tournament.

It's also surely a possibility that the NCAA tournament doesn't expand, which would be bad news for teams whose only route to eligibility is as an at-large.  And a less concrete effect: dilution of both the talent and coaching pools.  In some places you'll see the talent pool strengthen - I think the state of Michigan will have a critical mass when Michigan joins UDM as the state's D-I teams, and the state is just beginning to spread its wings a little as a high school talent pool.  But that's a long-term thing.  Short-term, teams like Notre Dame, Michigan, and Penn State will be competing for many of the same recruits that would've stayed on the East Coast otherwise.  This will hurt the UVAs and Marylands of the world a little and the Towsons and Sienas a lot more - if you were a lacrosse player, especially at a prep school where most of these kids come from, and you weren't being recruited by the big boys but you did have offers from Michigan and, say, UMBC, where would you go?

UVA, being one of the Old Guard, should be on their toes to make sure what happened to Princeton doesn't happen to them.  Not that Princeton is permanently screwed, but I don't want to go a season without making the tournament, do you?  For starters, the ACC should either be pushing the NCAA to expand the tournament or pushing its members to start playing more lacrosse so that we can get to six teams.  Or it should be looking to expand itself, since Title IX makes it nigh-impossible for a football-playing school to start a lacrosse program.  It requires a massive commitment along the lines of the $88 million donation to Penn State to start hockey teams (lacrosse would be smaller since you don't need a big arena, but still) or a fundraising pool and lacrosse infrastructure built up over many years as a club program, as Michigan has done.  Title IX is why Boston College and VT play women's lax and not men's.  But the ACC needs to be proactive about this to protect its teams.  Maybe it would take a pitch to Hopkins to join the conference for lacrosse only.  A hard sell to be sure, but an autobid would appeal to both sides.  Or maybe the conference should get out and nudge the NCAA in the direction of expansion.  Because if the conference is gonna stay at four teams, it's vital that it maintain the status that it enjoys now where nine years out of ten, all four lax teams earn bids.

UVA can't sit on its butt either.  As I've said in the past I think Dom Starsia's career is on its downslope; Craig Littlepage needs to recognize the point of no return on that path, whenever that occurs, and work on a cordial transition the way Debbie Ryan left - and sooner on the trail than we did with Ryan.  And from where I sit now the next coach should come from outside the program.  If Starsia is still our coach in 2020, that's probably not going to be a good thing.

And we need to schedule for success.  There's a fine line between weenie scheduling and suicidal scheduling.  For now we do a pretty good job of walking that line.  We have basically the same opponents every year, though, and the schedulers should take care not to let longstanding matchups like the one with Drexel get in the way of keeping the team competitive - and that's the case regardless of whether the Drexels on our schedule become powerhouses, stomping mats, or anything in between.  I'm not saying anything is wrong with the way we schedule now, but shifting landscapes will require keeping a critical eye on things.

I was recently asked by FTRS in the run-up to the GT baseball series what I thought our flagship sport at UVA was.  It's hard to say lacrosse qualifies, since it's not the revenue machine football and basketball are.  It's not profitable unless you ignore the scholarship expenses.  Even so, it's certainly the one sport more than any other where UVA is a titan in the field, and with soccer and recently, baseball, that's saying something.  It's easy to think we always will be, but it takes a little effort to make sure that what's good for the sport is also good for our team, because the mathematics (it's a lot easier to win a national title against 50 teams than against 70 or 80) make it a slightly uphill battle.

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