The Next Evolution of the AQ and the Lacrosse Conferences
By Michael Spinner
In a move that created little fan-fare but could be the wave of the future for the Automatic Qualifier (AQ) in lacrosse, the Women's Division I Lacrosse Committee recommended that eight of the 10 D1 conferences receive an AQ for next season and that a play-in game is added for the bottom two conferences-in this case the NEC and the MAAC. Basically, division I women's lacrosse would lower its current number of AQs to nine-eight from the conferences awarded a bid and one for the winner of the play-in game. This move would allow one extra at-large berth to be awarded to the 16-team tournament. Currently, division III men's and women's lacrosse have play-in games to enter the NCAA tournament and many division I sports, including basketball, utilize this feature to maximize the number of at-large berths.
The addition of a play-in game would only be a benefit to the tournament, at least as the conferences evolve. In 2003, the play-in game would have been between the winner of the MAAC (Mount St. Mary's) and the winner of the Patriot League (Army). Both qualified for the NCAA Tournament and were beaten by a combined score of 33-10…hardly competitive lacrosse. Had Army faced Mount St. Mary's with the winner facing top-seeded Johns Hopkins in the first round, another at-large team, perhaps North Carolina, would have been added to the tournament's first round. With a convincing win over Maryland during the season, a one-goal loss to Johns Hopkins, and a close battle with Virginia during the season, a UNC bid would have made the Division I Men's Tournament even more exciting and a hair more equitable.
For Women's Lacrosse, the selections of the MAAC and NEC were based on their conference's Ratings Percentage Index (RPI)-not two random selections. Seemingly, this move makes sense based on their Conferences' post-season performance. LeMoyne has won the last two MAAC AQs and lost to Princeton in the first round of the NCAA Tournament both years by a combined score of 44-4. The NEC has been won by UMBC the last two seasons and the Retrievers faced North Carolina and Loyola-losing both by a combined score of 40-9. Now UMBC is out of the NEC and in the America East…meaning that this conference's "powerhouse" is gone.
The true benefit of the Play-in game is that it gives both sides of the AQ debate exactly what they want. To those who oppose the AQ because of the number of top teams that do not gain tournament access with at-large bids, the Play-in game allows one more at-large team entry. To those who favor the AQ because it allows developing programs and conferences access to the national stage, nobody is losing out per se… there is just one more step in the path toward winning the NCAA Tournament. At a minimum, the developing program can recruit having made the post-season.
To me, this is a win-win situation and only makes the NCAA Tournament more exciting and more competitive. If the current format leads only to first round blow-outs when programs like UNC who ran with both championship game participants stayed home, who really benefits from the AQ system?
A NEW MEN'S CONFERENCE?
Speaking of the NCAA Tournament, the addition of men's division I programs to St. John's and Robert Morris and the move by UMBC from the NEC/ECAC to the America East could change the conference landscape in men's division I lacrosse. Observe:
" ECAC: The ECAC is fighting for its life as a division I lacrosse conference with an AQ because of the departures of Navy (Patriot League) and UMBC (America East). Currently, the ECAC has four teams and needs six to have an AQ. The good news for the conference is that Hobart will soon be without a home when they depart the Patriot League and St. John's is looking for a home. The addition of both brings the ECAC back to six teams for 2005 (the first season for St. John's). With this scenario, the ECAC could lose its AQ for one season while it waits for St. Johns or it could seek membership from one of the independents. Loyola would be the logical entry with Syracuse being a long-shot. All of this is speculation since no school mentioned has committed to the ECAC. It all just seems to fit logically based on needs of the programs and geography.
" New Conference Possible: A wild turn of events could see the addition of a Northeast Conference (NEC) men's lacrosse conference. Currently, there is a women's division I NEC with Mount St. Mary's, Monmouth, Wagner, Quinnipiac, Sacred Heart, LIU, Central Connecticut, and St. Francis. The addition of NEC member Robert Morris would allow an NEC men's conference with Robert Morris, Quinnipiac (currently an America East "associate member"), Sacred Heart (currently in the CAA), Mount Saint Mary's (a MAAC team), and leave the NEC with the need for a sixth team to qualify for an AQ. This plan allows the MAAC to stay intact with an AQ (seven remaining teams) and could even see one of the MAAC associate members (Providence/VMI) move to the NEC to complete the set.
Why would this NEC happen? Two reasons: For the NEC schools, this would end dependence on associate membership to be in a conference with an AQ (note Hobart's plight thanks to a decision by the Patriot League to end associate memberships). For Sacred Heart and Quinnipiac, this would mean a move from a tougher conference that necessitates much travel to a conference with familiar departmental ties and perhaps easier access to the NCAA Tournament. The CAA provides some of the toughest competition in the nation for Sacred Heart to compete with to gain an AQ. The America East is a step below the CAA, but with developing programs at Albany, Binghamton, and Stony Brook, along with the addition of an established UMBC program, a move to the NEC is a step in the right direction in terms of access to the tournament. Basically, for the near future, it's a two-team conference.
For the current MAAC associate members, a move out of the MAAC is an upgrade along with the opportunity to no longer have to deal with associate membership status. The MAAC places very tight constraints on scholarship money for men's lacrosse. A move to a conference where Wagner, Mount Saint Mary's, and perhaps one more could upgrade is a step in the right direction. And to be able to do so without hurting the MAAC, of course, is a plus.
There have been no announcements made concerning future conference relationships. But, with new programs being added to division I men's lacrosse and conference shuffling already happening, such a move is not impossible. It has to be assumed that moves similar to these are being discussed among official channels. For now, it is the summer, and there is not much lacrosse going on, so speculating is the best we can do!
July 22, 2003
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