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NCAA D1 Lacrosse Conference Re-Alignment

By now you’ve heard the big news: Denver has is joining the Big East, and Hopkins is joining the Big Ten for lacrosse. It’s huge news for the landscape of D1 lacrosse, and will have a number of impacts outside of the obvious. Let’s look at Conference Re-Alignment a bit closer!

Denver To Big East 2014

Denver will now play lacrosse in the Big East, and this move is a big one. Tierney just signed a five year contract extension with the school, and the Big East gets another big time program, just as it seemed teams were leaving the BE in droves. The conference will now be made up of Denver, Georgetown, Villanova, Providence, Marquette, and St. John’s. Rutgers remains in the big East for the 2014 season, and then the Scarlet Knights will leave the Big East in 2015, for the Big Ten, following Syracuse, which makes the move in 2014.

Some, particularly out West, are dismayed by this move. They say, “Why would Denver, a team in the WEST, play in the Big EAST? How does that make sense?” Well, it makes as much sense as Denver playing in the Eastern College Athletic Conference, doesn’t it? At the very least, it’s a lateral move. At its best, it pits Denver against other big time sports schools, instead of the smaller ECAC schools, and that seems like a pretty good fit for the NCAA’s top Western program.

What Happens To the ECAC?

With Denver out, and the Big Ten now a reality, the ECAC seems to be going the way of the Dodo. Michigan and Ohio State will be in the Big Ten, as that is their normal home. Loyola said they will join the Patriot League in 2014. This means that by 2016, at the latest, the ECAC would be down to Bellarmine, Hobart, Air Force, and Fairfield. That is far fewer teams than the ECAC would need to keep going.

Bellarmine is far enough South that they could join the Atlantic Sun conference, and probably do quite well against newer, Southern teams, and picking up AQ bids. I can’t see them staying. Fairfield could head back to the MAAC, where they would likely be the best team in the conference, and go to the tourney a lot. I don’t see how that hurts them. Hobart would be an excellent fit for a number of conferences, like the NEC (who will need teams), Patriot, America East, or even Big East.

Unfortunately for the Falcons of Air Force, this leaves them as the odd team out, which makes some sense, seeing as they are the only Western team outside of Denver. With a couple more moves by the other ECAC teams, AFA quickly become the newest, and ONLY, independent in all of D1 lacrosse. This is a tough route for a program that seemed to be on the rise. Maybe AFA will join the Big Ten for lacrosse as well? They could use the numbers, at least initially, and are located closer to Colorado than most purely Eastern conferences. The ECAC could try to pick up some new teams, but who?

Hopkins To The Big Ten?

Hopkins is making an announcement today, but the news is out: Hop is headed to the Big Ten for lacrosse. This means Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State (confirmed for 2015), AND Hopkins will all be in the same conference. With Maryland joining up, and Rutgers following the next year, the Big Ten is poised to become an INSTANT power conference in lacrosse. Watch out ACC!

Hopkins has been an independent in lacrosse for 130 years. This is a big move for Hop, but it’s really a HUGE tell-tale sign for the rest of us. Simply “being Hopkins” is not good enough anymore to dominate in college lacrosse. They need a conference, they need a home, and they want a shot at an AQ and an at-large. It means the road has gotten tougher for the best programs, and this is a good thing for lacrosse. It means Hopkins is now human, and that the playing field is starting to level. It was a move out of necessity, and I think it bodes well for the game.

The End Game

While all of this re-alignment makes for great headlines within the lacrosse world, I’m much more curious to see what it will do for the game overall. Will Big Ten lacrosse becoming a reality help push other Big Ten schools towards picking up the sport? Will we see Michigan State bring their varsity program back? Will Northwestern finally add a men’s team? Could a school like Indiana, Illinois, or Wisconsin decide to make the D1 jump? If it wasn’t at least a topic of discussion before, it should be now. And that’s a step.

Now, I don’t except to see truly big changes in 2014. Sure, we see some moves being made, and a Terp-less ACC will be bizarre, but I don’t think the focus of these moves was that short-sighted. In fact, it seems like the focus is NOT on the next year at all, or even the next couple of years, but well down the road.

I’m stating the above because if the focus of all these moves IS on next year, things really don’t look that great.

The Big East does not look awesome right now as a conference, and neither does the Big Ten. Both look OK. The ACC seems to still be in shambles in terms of numbers for an AQ (but not talent), and the ECAC is crumbling away as we speak. Teams outside of the “big time” are looking homeless, and no one seems sure where they belong. Conferences are waxing and waning in power and the number of teams, and AQ bids, seem up for grabs like they have not been for years, possibly ever.

So if this isn’t great for the game right now AND it doesn’t show immediate benefit for everyone, why is it all going down? It’s because people in the D1 lacrosse world can feel the sport reaching a critical mass, and they don’t want to be left behind once it does.

Think of it this way: If your team just waits it out, and keeps playing in a small or dying conference, you might take an AQ or two, and have a couple of nice, successful seasons. But once that conference really dries up, and all the other top conferences are filled, where do you go? Nowhere. You become the new independent and then languish. OR you can make moves now, and team up with BIG TIME schools in BIG TIME conferences, and get to work on keeping your program competitive.

Teams are deciding whether they want to be BIG TIME right now, so pay attention. The next 10 years of set up are all being laid out… can you see how it will all finish up?