NEC Tournament AQ, New ACC Means Eventual MD1 Bracket Expansion
If you missed it, the Northeast Conference tweeted Wednesday morning that the conference has officially been granted an automatic berth to the NCAA Division I men's lacrosse tournament starting with the 2013 season. The matter was approved by the NCAA Championships Cabinet.
In the short term, this means league members Bryant, Mount St. Mary's, Quinnipiac, Robert Morris, Sacred Heart and Wagner have a direct line to May Madness via winning the NEC postseason tournament.
It also means that eight of the 16 spots for the Division I men's tournament will be determined by automatic qualifying berths. This is 50 percent, which is the AQ/at-large threshold at which the NCAA prefers not to surpass for its national postseason tournament fields. Once the balance shifts to AQ-heavy, considerations start being made for bracket expansion.
This offseason we just saw the Division I women's tournament expand from 16 to 26 teams for this very reason. "We have to hold to the principle where we have to reserve 50 percent of the bracket for at-larges," former NCAA Division I women's selection committee chair Candice Lee said after that announcment.
With Syracuse joining the Atlantic Coast Conference on July 1, 2013 and Notre Dame also joining eventually, that men's league will also be eligible to for an AQ in a few years, pushing the total number of leagues with AQs to nine, with the America East, Big East, ECAC, Ivy, MAAC, NEC and Patriot. That would leave seven spots for at-large teams. Throw in Johns Hopkins, which has an annual shot at the tournament with its strength of schedule, and the fact that all six members of the new ACC superconference (Duke, Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia along with Syracuse and Notre Dame additions) could make the tournament annually, there's even less room for at-larges in other leagues.
And then Selection Sunday, and late-season games, could get a lot more stressful for bubble teams and the men's selection committee, depending on the year and the circumstances.
This could mean simply the addition of one or two play-in games – that would keep consistent with other sports in terms of NCAA Championship inclusion rates (below), and Division I men's programs aren't being added at the same rates of other divisions. Or forward thinkers would add more teams and games if it makes sense financially. It's at least a few years off, and probably more, but consider Division I men's bracket expansion officially on my radar.
NCAA Championship Inclusion Rates
Football: 70 of 125 (56 percent)