Conference realignment. You know it, and you probably hate it. It puts San Diego State in the Big "East," 10 teams in the Big "12" and 12 teams in the Big "10." It ignores perfectly logical arrangements in favor of really stupid ones, and best of all, ends centuries-old rivalries. It dilutes Division I athletics by adding ever weaker teams to the mix, in the name of "the more the merrier." Except in hockey, where it threatens the existence of "unwanted" programs, no matter how old or new. What fun!
In lacrosse, though, conference realignment is basically the norm. It's a shifting landscape. Teams are constantly adding (Michigan, Marquette, etc.) and deleting (Butler, New Hampshire, etc.) their programs, for now at a much faster rate than any other sport. In this case, the changing landscape drives conference realignment, not the other way around. Which makes it tolerable.
So I think it's an interesting exercise to try a look into the crystal ball and see what'll be different about lacrosse in five years. Things are certain not to stay the way they are.
What we know for sure (or mostly for sure):
-- Syracuse will be in the ACC. Duh. Probably as soon as 2014. They won't be here next year, but I think the 2012-13 academic year will be their last in the Biggish Eastish.
-- There will be at least four new teams in Division I. Marquette, High Point, Furman, and Boston U. have all officially announced the addition of men's lacrosse. Marquette and High Point have basically functioning teams that don't play games yet; they'll begin NCAA play next year. BU starts in 2014, and Furman in 2015. Two of them already have conference homes: Marquette in the Biggish Eastish, and BU in the America East.
-- The MAAC will become a "fully funded" league. Right now, MAAC schools don't offer the full allotment of 12.6 scholarships. Five years from now they'll have completed their transition to doing so. This could have an effect on conference affiliations, because two schools that belong to the MAAC for everything else (Fairfield and Loyola) don't for lacrosse, because they fully fund their teams.
What I think will happen:
-- There will not be a sudden wave of FBS football schools adding lacrosse. Authorities as visible as the New York Times took note of Michigan's newborn varsity program and declared them the harbinger of a trend, but I don't see it. Michigan was unique in a ton of ways: they're a superpower on the level of Texas and Ohio State in terms of athletic department resources; they had a superpower, varsity-ready roster that was no longer on a level playing field with the MCLA; they had relatively few startup costs thanks to the infrastructure that their coach (John Paul) had built over the years. Truthfully, the school didn't have to do any work. John Paul did it all, all the way up to getting equipment deals and establishing fundraising pipelines. Your average FBS school has half the resources and would have to build from the ground up.
-- There will be a Southern Conference. It's a shame Presbyterian shut down, because they would've probably had a conference to join in a few years. Right now the southern small-time lacrosse schools are spread across a couple conferences and one is independent. If Bellarmine (which is in Louisville and therefore actually closer to the Midwest than the South) sees itself as southern enough, there are six schools all lined up: Bellarmine from the ECAC, VMI and Jacksonville from the MAAC, independent Mercer, and future buddies Furman and High Point. (Recall that you need six in order to gain a tourney autobid, so nobody will form a conference with fewer. Especially not mid-mid-mid-majors.)
Even if Bellarmine prefers to stick with the ECAC, I don't think lacrosse is done expanding in that region. There are a lot of D-I schools there with similar profiles, and all it would take is one. They can't really call themselves the Southern Conference because the name is taken, but it only makes sense for them to band together.
-- The ECAC will re-evolve into a reincarnation of the Great Western Lacrosse League. The GWLL formed in response to the NCAA dropping the "western region" from the tournament, and it was a fairly viable league until schools like Butler and Michigan State dropped the game. When the GWLL folded, the ECAC absorbed most of what was left of it. (The funny thing is that Fairfield was a member for a little while, left for the ECAC, and then found itself re-affiliated with most of those schools.)
But the ECAC has essentially been little more than a holding ground for teams until their real conferences started to sponsor lacrosse. Consider some of its past members: Georgetown, Navy, UMass, Rutgers. Those teams have gone and joined up with their actual conference members in (for example) the relatively new Big East lacrosse league. I think Fairfield and Loyola will follow a similar path; further, the idea of Detroit staying in the MAAC is a 50/50 proposition at best.
Penn State, meanwhile, I think is at least somewhat likely to want to join their Big Ten brethren in one conference. Currently they're in the CAA. A pretty strong Western league of Denver, Air Force, Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, and Detroit is a distinct possibility, with Bellarmine possibly wanting to stay. It could get stronger depending on the direction of the Biggish Eastish, which is walking a very thin tightrope; Lord only knows what'll happen to Notre Dame.
-- The tournament will expand to 18 or 20 teams. It'll be almost forced to. There currently are six AQs; in 2013, the Big East and NEC will gain autobids, upping the number to eight. That alone might cause it to expand; the NCAA can't possibly like the idea of replacing an Ivy League team or even, potentially, an ACC one, with an NEC squad. We just smoked the best the NEC had to offer, 17-5.
If the Southern Conference comes to fruition - a near-certainty, I think - then that would push the number of autobids to nine and the NCAA would essentially have no choice. You'd see a 20-team tournament then. Right now there are 10 at-larges; to preserve that, 20 would be needed. Of all these predictions, I feel safest in this one.
What I have no idea about:
-- The future of the Big East. I've been using NASCAR analogies lately. If the various D-I conferences are NASCAR vehicles circling the track at Daytona, the Big East is obviosly the one that crashed into the jet dryer. They're in the worst shape and they're the ones causing the biggest mess. There is absolutely no guarantee that the Big East remains a viable lacrosse league. Syracuse is obviously getting ready to boogie. Marquette will replace them, but then there's Notre Dame and the wide speculation they might be forced by circumstances into a football conference. If that conference is the Big Ten, then they might join the western teams in the ECAC/future GWLL. If that conference is the ACC, then what - do we petition the NCAA for an autobid and put that much more pressure on the tournament to expand?
And what about the basketball schools? If the Catholic hoops wing of the Big East - Villanova, Providence, Georgetown, etc. - doesn't engineer a schism from the absurdly stupid football side of the conference in the next five years, I'll be surprised. Lacrosse won't enter into their calculation in that respect, but there aren't enough of them for a full league. If that schism happens, it'll be the end of the Big East as a lacrosse league unless they can poach some teams from who knows where, and who knows where its various members would end up?
-- Who will drop lacrosse. Someone probably will. I just don't know who.
In the end, admittedly this all means practically nothing for UVA. When Syracuse was announced as a future ACC member, that was the big deal right there; remember that we already play them every year, and nobody else does. Point for us; everyone else's schedule just got that much harder. The only other way I see this having any effect on us is if someone joins the conference who already plays lacrosse, because I don't think any of the conference's current schools will add it. And the only two even remotely likely candidates are Notre Dame and Rutgers. But the evolving landscape in lacrosse is a fascinating study; you just don't see it in other sports, and when you do, it sucks. This is almost a respite.