May 2, 2002

M. Lax Postseason Structure

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It’s the middle of a mid-week afternoon and at the men’s lacrosse office, head coach Jeff Tambroni and his staff are gathered watching film in preparation for this weekend’s season finale against Hobart. But despite a 9-3 record, a win over former No. 1 Syracuse, and a strong campaign in the formidable Ivy League, the contest with the Statesmen will be the last of the season for Cornell, barring a series of events beyond its control.

Meanwhile, Manhattan College lacrosse coach Tim McIntee is preparing for the Jasper’s finale against St. Joseph’s this weekend. Despite a mediocre 9-5 record that includes a trio of losses to Sacred Heart, Rutgers and Stony Break, the team will be assured of a ticket to the playoffs. Loyola, on the other hand, enters the weekend with a 9-3 record, a schedule that includes the likes of Georgetown, Syracuse, Duke and John Hopkins and is still considered a bubble team.

The seemingly illogical scenario is brought about by the structure of the NCAA men’s lacrosse tournament. Currently, 12 of the 55 teams participating at the division one level are invited. Eight conferences are represented in the sport, six of which currently hold what is known as an automatic qualifier, meaning the champion of each of those respective leagues is invited to the tournament. This leaves only six other at-large bids.

Such a situation has made the notion of automatic qualifiers (AQ) a contentious issue among coaches and administrators. Ostensibly the rationale of the AQs is to provide an incentive for athletic departments to allocate increased resources to the sport of lacrosse. It is argued that with the potential to partake in the NCAA tournament, lacrosse programs would proliferate. However, critics argue that the AQ’s have created a situation where quality programs are left out of May lacrosse in favor of mediocre teams that captured weaker leagues.

Tambroni sees both the upside and downside of the system.

“Automatic qualifiers help the game to grow over time. It’s a positive addition to the sport in that respect,” he said, attributing some of the success of upstart programs like Ohio State, Notre Dame and Butler to the AQ system.

But Tambroni appeared cognizant of the downside of the system as well.

“You certainly will have a lot of teams from the top 25 that don’t make the tournament. That’s a difficult situation for a lot of coaches to handle. You work hard all season and think you deserve to be in the postseason.”

Others, like Brown’s Scott Nelson, are more critical of the AQ’s impact on the game. The Bears’s head man argues that the tournament should showcase “the best teams from the strongest leagues.” While he considers the argument that AQ’s lead to growth, he suggests that it is mistaken to think that teams who win bids based from automatic qualifiers do so because of increased resources from athletic directors.

“Programs can develop independently without an automatic qualifier,” he said, citing the Metro-Atlantic Athletic Conference’s Manhattan as a school that is limited to just four scholarship players a year, compared to the NCAA limit of 12.6.

All of this puts the selection committee in a precarious situation come early May.

“You’re asking a lot of the selection committee with just six slots open, especially given the parity we have seen in the sport,” Tambroni reasoned.

It appears, though, that after years of lobbying, a solution has come about that will hopefully allay some of the concerns over qualified teams being omitted from the tournament.

Next year’s NCAA tournament will feature 16 teams, a plan that is raising cheers from coaches and lacrosse fans across the country.

“With 12 teams, the problem is that the top 10 teams are very consistent from year to year. So if you loose even once or twice, with only six at-large bids, it becomes very hard to make the tournament,” Tambroni said.

“Expansion is some of the best news we’ve had in college lacrosse in a long time,” said Nelson, who argued that the sport was a prime candidate for expansion given its unique characteristics. He alluded to its consistent income stream and low costs associated with travel as features that made the sport an attractive candidate for expansion.

Financial concerns and bureaucratic snafus had kept the proposal from becoming a reality for several years. In order for the proposal to take hold, it must be voted favorably on at four levels of the NCAA: the championship cabinet, the budget subcommittee, the management council and the board of directors.

A confluence of factors made for the change of heart, but some form of alternation was going to be necessary for next year due to the new automatic bid for the Colonial Athletic Association – the conference that is home to Towson and Hofstra. Such a situation would have made for seven automatic bids in a 12-team tournament a situation that violated a NCAA stipulation stating no more than half of the teams competing in the tournament may come from AQ’s.

The key to the deal involved an agreement among men’s hockey and lacrosse staff along with those associated with women’s softball. These three sports were the only ones left in the NCAA wishing to expand, and when it was shown that by granting additional spots to all three sports, gender equity could be maintained, the NCAA bigwigs were hooked.

But coaches like Tambroni and Nelson are quick to point out that for years, the NCAA had been lenient in allowing for even 12 teams, given the relatively small number of overall programs.

Still the sentiment is resoundingly optimistic toward the new format.

Said Tambroni, “For the game of lacrosse, it is important to expand. This proposal not only leads to growth in terms of number of teams, it also means more coaching jobs and publicity for the sport.”

Archived article by Gary Schueller