In what is almost an annual tradition at this point, we are upon yet another NCAA Men’s DI lacrosse conference realignment.
Back in February, the ASUN conference announced the formation of a men’s lacrosse league. Conferences entered the news more recently in the context of college football, as schools are fighting for better positioning in the new NIL world (name, image, likeness), specifically Texas and Oklahoma moving to the SEC, which set off a chain reaction of the ACC, Big Ten, and Pac-12 then forming an “Alliance” to facilitate future scheduling. The latest news is the Big 12 moving to add BYU, Cincinnati, Houston, and UCF to its league.
In the context of football and basketball, this makes sense.
There are large TV and sponsorship deals to consider, alongside conference tournaments, bowl games, and ensuring being able to sell exciting games to the home crowd. Even for struggling football teams, bringing in a Penn State, Michigan, or LSU will automatically bring their fans in large numbers as well. But why do conferences matter for lacrosse where programs are routinely watched in-person by a handful of students and families? Because making the NCAA Tournament really matters.
LACROSSE CONFERENCE REALIGNMENT IS HERE: WHY LAX CONFERENCES MATTER
History of major lacrosse conferences
While it was longer ago than I would like to admit, it does not feel like forever ago when you had conferences like the ECAC and Great Western Lacrosse League taking responsibility for homing new programs and generating automatic qualifiers for the NCAA Tournament. Back in those days, the two behemoths that refused to join conferences were Johns Hopkins and Syracuse. Frankly, neither of them needed to. Both were NCAA Tournament regulars, and neither had issues scheduling games against the top teams in the country in any given year.
At this time, the Orange were in the midst of 22-straight Final Four appearances. While the tournament was smaller back then, the remarkable part about that streak is they never had a single bad year for 22 straight years. No bad opening round games, and no weak losses in the season to jeopardize an NCAA bid.
Once that streak ended, things started shifting around for the Orange, and they joined the Big East lacrosse conference while it was still being formed during that round of realignment. It was a few years later when the Big Ten announced it would sponsor lacrosse that Hopkins, which is Division III in all other sports, would join as a lacrosse-only member of the new conference. This move would steal Maryland over from the ACC and led to the ACC grabbing Syracuse and Notre Dame from the Big East, forming a five-team league. This is where things become interesting.
Why join a conference at all?
The major benefit of being in a lacrosse conference is the automatic qualifier (AQ) for the NCAA Tournament. Each conference gets to decide how it does its tournament, whether it be all teams, four teams, six teams, etc. But, the NCAA does require that a conference have six teams in order to be granted an AQ. What this has set up is a really interesting pinch on the ACC schools.
When Syracuse first joined the Big East, it was essentially to give it another way of getting into the tournament. The Orange are still very reliable for playing a tough schedule and winning most games to get an at-large bid, but the number of those bids is shrinking. As good as the ACC is and has been, the rest of the country is catching up. The Big Ten is the obvious contender for sending multiple teams to the tournament, but so are the Ivy League, Patriot League, and even SoCon or America East.
That leaves ACC teams to playing each other all season, and then having their RPI-multiplier tournament at the end of the year. Winning that is not an AQ, but it would help your strength of schedule enough to essentially count as one. But what about the independent schools?
For this 2021 season, Utah, Robert Morris, Cleveland State, and Hampton were left without a conference. Hampton didn’t even play this year because of COVID-19 concerns, while Utah was basically trying to play everyone it could. Robert Morris stepped out of a conference for the year as it realigned to the Horizon League in all other sports, and Utah is currently left homeless until the other Pac-12 schools move over from the MCLA to NCAA for men’s lacrosse like they have for women’s Lacrosse.
Those four schools definitely do not have the long histories and recruiting potential of their ACC counterparts. So for them, finding a conference is pivotal to show incremental gains year over year. The basic formula any program wants to follow is qualify for the conference tournament, win it, get the AQ from doing so, be in the NCAA Tournament, and fight for a national title.
Without a conference, you’re left with just playing all year and hoping the selection committee sees your resume favorably. As we know with teams like Rutgers over the past few years, that is much easier said than done.
Lacrosse conference Realignment moving forward
That brings us to the previously-mentioned announcement of the ASUN conference. From those independents, the ASUN is picking up Robert Morris, Utah, and Cleveland State. This will be the first time either Utah or Cleveland State will be apart of a conference at all. Along with those three, Air Force, Bellarmine, and Detroit Mercy will also join the league. Due to a few of those team leaving the Southern Conference, Hampton will now be in the SoCon (unless there’s a team I’ve lost track of).
This should mean that the 2022 season will be completely conference affiliated in Division I men’s lacrosse!
So while men’s lacrosse may not be in the driver’s seat for conference affiliation, that doesn’t mean we can expect things to stop here. The schools with lacrosse-only affiliation will be on the lookout for better opportunities, and the ACC will always be searching for that sixth men’s team until it’s filled. On top of all that, there’s the potential of new programs being added, like Cleveland State and Utah, who can introduce a whole new dynamic at any time.