Morning Jac: The NCAC Reality Check
If you walked around the lacrosse offices in the North Coast Athletic Conference on June 10, there were probably a lot of slamming doors, mumbled curses and clenched fists. Why all of the coaching agita at the start of summertime? It was on that day that Hiram (Ohio) College announced that it will be adding men's (and women's) lacrosse in 2013, effectively ending one of the biggest rackets in collegiate sports.
With the addition of the Terriers, the NCAC will now have enough teams to trigger an automatic qualifying bid to the NCAA tournament, moving them out of Pool B, which is designated for true independents or for leagues that don't hit the seven-team minimum. The NCAC champion will now be in Pool A (AQ), and the remaining teams will get thrown in Pool C (at-large) with the rest of the top teams in the country.
Swimming in Pool B was quite lucrative for the top NCAC schools – both financially and in terms of NCAA bids.
Because they had the toughest non-AQ conference, Denison, Ohio Wesleyan and occasionally others, were already a step ahead of the other independents, so they had other teams seeking them out. As such, the NCAC schools could dictate where a game would be played. Colorado College, then a fellow Pool B school (they now have the SCAC AQ), made repeated trips to Ohio to get in on the action, but only once saw a reciprocal journey. The NCAC schools could then use their resources to play SOS-building games against the likes of Salisbury, Stevenson, Lynchburg, W&L and other Pool A/C programs while kicking back and waiting for the remainder of Pool B to come to them.
This scenario meant bids to the NCAA tourney. Lots of bids. Last year it was three of four. In 2010, it was three of three. The NCAC snagged both Pool B bids in '09. And the list goes on. For almost a decade now, the conference has been getting fat off a protocol that was meant to be a carrot for institutions in more remote parts of the country to take the lacrosse plunge.
Not to say that the NCAC teams have been tomato cans when they arrived in the tourney. No team wants to see Denison in its bracket, and that was demonstrated in '09 when the Big Red stunned Roanoke – at one time ranked No. 1 in the country that year – to reach the quarterfinals. Denison proved it again this year when they took then-unbeaten RIT to overtime in the second round.
However, if the NCAC had been an AQ conference during those salad days, they would have received one bid, and that's it. The second place team would have found itself behind near-miss contenders from the Empire 8, Centennial, NESCAC and ODAC on the outside looking in. A third team would have been a fantasy.
What will happen to the NCAC in 2013 when the ride is over?
First, the Ohio Wesleyan-Denison rivalry, which is a battle even when both teams are locks for the tourney, is going to take on a whole different level. Second, the schools that make up the conference – Denison, Hiram, Kenyon, Oberlin, OWU, Wittenberg and Wooster – are all friendly to the "lacrosse demographic," for lack of a better term, so a second team will always be in the discussion for an at-large bid, even if they don't get it.
Third, and most importantly, the coaches in the NCAC are going to have to change their philosophy. The top teams in the NCAC had the Pool B handbook memorized and they knew exactly what they had to do to get into the tourney. It may have been frustrating at times watching qualified Pool C teams left out of the bracket, but you've got to give credit when its due. The NCAC schools played their hand beautifully. The game has changed now, and we'll have to see how well the NCAC programs can adapt to a new, more competitive, atmosphere.
Until 2013 rolls around, however, don't bring up Hiram to NCAC coaches.