The dust has settled in the wake of Johns Hopkins' announcement that the men's lacrosse team will join the Big Ten for the 2015 season. But that does not mean that the sport's makeover is complete.
"Things are going to continue to shuffle, things are going to continue to evolve," ESPN analyst and former Johns Hopkins midfielder Mark Dixon said. "… Expect the unexpected. You just never know what is going to take place. Everyone is looking out for No. 1, and you have to. You have to take care of your own, you have to take care of your situation, and that's what these schools are doing."
The Blue Jays' move, announced Monday, is the latest in a long line that began recently with Syracuse and Notre Dame leaving the Big East for the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC). Loyola soon followed by departing the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC) for the Patriot League, Maryland and Rutgers jumped ship from the ACC and Big East, respectively, for the Big Ten, and Denver switched from the ECAC to the Big East three days before Johns Hopkins' announcement.
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And that is not the end of the conference shell game. With Michigan and Ohio State leaving the ECAC and Penn State leaving the Colonial Athletic Association to form the Big Ten with the Blue Jays, Terps and Rutgers, the remaining four teams in the ECAC — Air Force, Bellarmine, Fairfield and Hobart — are looking for new homes for 2015 and beyond.
The formation of the ACC and the Big Ten might create the impression that there are two potential super-conferences in the sport in terms of competition and prominence. But ESPN analyst Paul Carcaterra said college lacrosse is unlike college football.
"[W]e've seen a commitment to lacrosse from some of these smaller schools that provide strong lacrosse because of participation rates coast to coast," the former Syracuse All-American midfielder said. "So I think there's going to be a great representation in terms of player ability that are playing for some of these smaller conferences and closing the gap. I also feel that there are a lot of historic or traditionally-rich lacrosse programs from conferences like the Ivy League that you don't see in football in terms of competing for a national championship, but compete at the highest level in lacrosse."
The number of conferences and automatic qualifiers will likely compel the NCAA to expand the tournament. The current 16-team field is composed of eight spots earned through automatic qualifiers and the remaining eight awarded via at-large invitations.
With the ACC and the Atlantic Sun fielding six teams each — the required number for leagues to gain automatic qualifiers — there will be 10 automatic qualifiers for next season, and the NCAA mandates that the field for the postseason at least equally split spots between automatic qualifiers and at-large bids.
Whether tournament expansion will involve first-round byes or play-in games remains to be seen, but CBS Sports Network analyst Evan Washburn is concerned that enlarging the field will dilute the exclusivity of the postseason.
"I think this 16-team field makes the regular season and the build-up and the conference tournaments that much more exciting," the former Delaware defenseman said. "It's not like we're talking about college football with the BCS where we don't have a playoff. We do. We have 16 teams, and I think it makes that final month incredibly entertaining. But I do see expansion on the horizon."
Conference realignment will have an impact on traditional rivalries as teams will have to juggle their schedules to accommodate league games. Dixon said the shift in affiliation may eliminate some long-standing rivalries.
"The bottom line is being successful and competing for a spot in the NCAA tournament and ultimately competing for a NCAA championship," he said. "So if you have to sacrifice traditional rivalries for that, I think coaches are ready to do that. I don't think alumni bases are ready to do that, but I think coaches see the writing on the wall."
More changes are likely afoot as the sport continues to grow. The adjustments will have its fair share of supporters and detractors, but overall, Carcaterra said the changes should be expected.
"I actually think it's necessary because of the times," he said. "And I'm not saying that it's great or that it's bad. I feel like it's necessary because you can't fault these institutions for wanting to join the party. If they don't, there could be serious repercussions in terms of being left out of the party and not being in the bigger picture and not putting your program in a position to get the best exposure, the best opportunities to play."