Greetings, fellow Michigan fans, and now that it’s official, or will be in short order: As a dual fan whose other school is a lacrosse powerhouse, on behalf of fans of other lax programs, welcome to the world of D-I lacrosse. Michigan is joining an NCAA sport that is growing at a pace that doesn’t satisfy a lot of its fans, but is actually one of the fastest of any that the NCAA sponsors. For some, Michigan lacrosse is a symbol of a new and potentially very exciting frontier of expansion: the Midwest. We are not the only fans wondering about a potential Big Ten lacrosse conference. This is intended not to be an introduction to the game itself, but a primer on the NCAA “scene”, if you will. Hopefully this will get you smart (or smarter) on how the world of Division I lacrosse is arrayed. (Men’s lax only – I’m not qualified to speak on the women’s game.)
Like hockey, lacrosse is a very regional sport; in fact, even more so than hockey, at least for now. Hockey is big in the Northeast and upper Midwest; lacrosse is largely limited to the mid-Atlantic. This year was the first in which an NCAA tournament game was held west of the Mississippi; west of Lake Michigan, in fact. Last year was the first in which a championship game was held with a participant (Notre Dame) from a state that didn’t border on the Atlantic Ocean. Roughly 80% of the 61 teams that played D-I men’s lax this year are clustered in the Boston-to-Washington corridor.
Not only that, but lacrosse is still more insular than hockey with respect to national championships and the “top tier” of the sport. The line between hockey royalty and hockey hoi polloi is much more blurred than in lacrosse; ask a lacrosse fan who the top teams are and he’ll probably rattle off eight teams: the four ACC squads (that’s Virginia, UNC, Maryland, and Duke) plus Cornell, Hopkins, Syracuse, and Princeton. Denver and Notre Dame are working on breaking this octumvirate, but it’s tough. And guess who are the eight teams in the quarterfinals of this year’s tournament? Only Carolina and Princeton are missing, and the former got stuck with Maryland in the first round. The rest have proven largely interchangeable.
Let’s take a look at some of the things you’ll want to know about in case you feel like sounding smart about national men’s lax sometime in the future:
The polar opposite of hockey, this is an ever-shifting landscape as the sport grows. Conferences are much smaller, too, as teams vie for a spot in an auto-qualifying conference of six teams – but not too many more. Things are beginning to match up with the ordinary D-I conferences. The Big East has begun sponsoring lacrosse, as has the Northeast Conference; the ACC and Ivy League always have. Some conferences (such as the CAA) have wildly different membership than their nominal grouping; others (Big East, for example) are just smaller versions of their regular bunch.
Michigan will be playing in the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC) which has little to do with the hockey ECAC and has been a very fluid conference in recent times, serving as a stopping-off point for many teams on the way to a more permanent home such as the Big East. With Michigan onboard, it is also lacrosse’s biggest conference at eight teams and may get larger if High Point joins; it may also get smaller if Fairfield and Loyola decide to join the MAAC, where they exist in the rest of the world. The current membership should not be expected to be the long-term membership.
The ECAC is also wildly divergent in the quality of its teams. A quick rundown:
Denver – Burgeoning powerhouse and a team to be reckoned with going forward. The biggest obstacle to dominance Michigan will have for some time. They are coached by Bill Tierney, a Hall of Fame legend who won six NCAA championships at Princeton, and are in this year’s Final Four.
Loyola and Fairfield – Loyola is a respectable team that has some history getting into the NCAA tournament and flirted with it again this year; they are located in the lacrosse hotbed of Baltimore. Fairfield is a less-accomplished team, but they can be tough. Both are MAAC teams in real life, and there has been speculation (and nothing more than speculation) that now that the MAAC allows the full allotment of scholarships, they may want to join up.
Ohio State – Slowly gaining respectability in the lacrosse world, games against the Buckeyes will probably be tough pills to swallow in the first couple of years. OSU knocked off North Carolina earlier this year and gave Virginia and Notre Dame a difficult time, but also won by just a goal against Detroit and lost to Fairfield and Albany.
Air Force – Perhaps a good litmus test of where Michigan stands in its first couple of years. Air Force is the only service academy that hasn’t tasted much success in lacrosse. They were 6-7 this year but largely on the backs of the NCAA’s crap teams like Mercer and Presbyterian; and some of those crap teams beat them.
Hobart and Bellarmine – Non D-I schools that play lacrosse as their specialty D-I sport (similar to, say, Ferris State in hockey.) Michigan should be very competitive with these teams and hopefully beat them in their first year.
This isn't even necessarily the guaranteed lineup. Conference membership has been so fluid in this sport that a change between now and next season wouldn't surprise anyone.
The conference tournament, like all other lacrosse conference tournaments, invites just four teams; this is for RPI purposes and ease of scheduling.
THE NCAA TOURNAMENT
Like hockey, the lacrosse tourney is a 16-team, single-elimination affair; it is much less of a plinko game, however. Chalk advances with great frequency. It does not fuss about with regionals; first-round games are hosted by the seeded team. The NCAA determines these matchups mainly by seeding the teams 1-16 and then fudging the bottom half a little bit for travel purposes. The quarterfinals are hosted at two neutral sites, which are usually somewhere between Long Island and Baltimore. The NCAA is fanatical about giving teams as short a ride as possible to their quarterfinal site, even to the extent of allowing a lower-seeded team to play on their home field against a higher-seeded team if they happen to be a host. (This happened when #8 Stony Brook hosted #1 Virginia last year.) As with every NCAA tourney, the Final Four is hosted at another neutral site. The NCAA uses NFL stadiums for this purpose and often fills them, especially if the game is in Baltimore or Philadelphia. The men’s lax championship is usually the third or fourth best-attended NCAA championship each year, depending on how you account for the College World Series; the championship game, at times, outdraws the basketball championship.
Currently, six conferences have autobids to the tournament, but that will change in 2012; there will be eight next year. Because of this, and because of the NCAA’s usual desire to see its marquee teams on the marquee, I expect the tournament to expand to 20 in the near future. Interestingly, the ACC has no autobid because it has only four teams, but its teams nearly always qualify anyway.
Only eight teams – the abovementioned eight “royalty” teams – have ever won the NCAA tournament. Five additional teams have made it to the championship game and lost: Notre Dame, UMass, Towson, Navy, and Loyola. Unseeded teams – those that don’t host first-round games, almost never even make it to the Final Four – it’s happened just
four five times, the fifth this year with Maryland.
Lacrosse has three recruiting hotbeds, in order of importance: Long Island, Baltimore, and Philadelphia/South Jersey. This isn’t to say that talent can’t be found elsewhere, but Michigan will want to establish a presence in at least one of these three areas to start with. Fortunately, the school has a very good name on the East Coast. U-M will also draw players from Chicago, Ontario, perhaps New England, and of course, its home state. Long term, it’s my opinion that having two D-I lacrosse teams in the state, playing each other, will help create a critical mass of interest in the state that just wasn’t there when MSU was the lone D-I team here, and that will be a bonus for Michigan’s recruiting. That’s a factor for ten years and beyond.
One important source of players is the Ivy League. Teams like Virginia and Syracuse typically try to attract an Ivy transfer most years. Ivy schools don’t allow their athletes to play intercollegiate athletics while in grad school, so redshirted players look elsewhere for grad school to finish up their fifth year of eligibility. Because of the NCAA rules about grad school transfers, these players are available right away without skipping a year. Michigan should work very hard to attract these players, especially in the first few years of D-I play; they’ll help bridge the gap between the club years and the beginning of Michigan’s true contending years.
One of the best things about recruiting and fanhood in general in the lacrosse realm is the total lack of concern about the lure of professional sports. In the distant future that may change, but for now, lacrosse has none of the accompanying worry about competing interests. There’s no junior hockey in Ontario, no MLS or overseas club system, no slimy agents whispering NBA dreams in your players’ ears, no minor league farm system. Players play four years and occasionally five. Nobody leaves early for the pros and nobody drafts your committed recruits. It’s the only college sport that enjoys a big-time feel and a four-year guarantee.
I’ll leave the full-scale predictions to the experts. Suffice it for now that there’s a wide range of expectations out there in the wide world for Michigan lacrosse. Most don’t really expect Michigan to contend right away; neither do I. Some go so far as to suggest Michigan will be winless or nearly so, entering the league at a level below even Bellarmine. I don’t think so. But it’s a brave new world of sorts; Michigan will go from the top rung to near the bottom. The first goal: win the ECAC. That will be a few years down the road, especially with Denver in the way in the immediate future. In three years UDM, in the MAAC, came within one game of making the tourney and that was considered an eye-opening feat. My hope is that within ten years, Michigan has established itself as a team firmly established as a contender to earn at-large berths to the tournament; fewer, if the tourney expands.
Good luck to the teams as they take a big new step to the future! It’s a big deal for Michigan to be joining the world of D-I lacrosse, but it’s just as big a deal for the world of D-I lacrosse to welcome Michigan.