Tale of Two MAC Conferences
With the addition of several new conference members, the Middle Atlantic Conference (MAC) men's lacrosse league will officially be split into the conference's traditional Commonwealth and Freedom divisions, like other sports across the conference. But despite the new delineation, the two entities will be operating in different worlds for the next two years.
Or at least two different pools.
The nine-team Commonwealth division (Albright, Alvernia, Elizabethtown, Hood, Lebanon Valley, Lycoming, Messiah, Stevenson, Widener) will be playing for an automatic qualifier to the NCAA Division III tournament while the seven-program Freedom (Arcadia, DeSales, Eastern, FDU-Florham, King's, Manhattanville, Misericordia) will be floating in Pool B (independents).
Why the imbalanced leagues? Why one AQ division and one Pool B when both hit the seven-team NCAA minimum for an auto-bid?
The imbalanced numbers are the result of decisions made by the conference presidents, mostly taking into account geographical concerns. As for the discrepancy in the two pools, that boils down to the nuances of NCAA's seven-team AQ minimum.
While the MAC now has 16 teams, only 13 of them are counted immediately. Because Stevenson, Hood and Arcadia are new members this spring, there is a two-year waiting period before they can count towards a league's enrollment. As such, Stevenson and Hood can compete for an AQ this coming season because they are lumped in with seven original members while Arcadia will not because the Freedom only has six original members.
More intriguing than the esoterica about the genesis of the two MAC divisions is what it means for the programs facing two different paths to the NCAA tourney. The knee-jerk reaction is to believe the Commonwealth got the better end of the bargain with an AQ in hand, but is that really the case?
I would argue no. Yes, in theory, those nine teams in the Commonwealth have an equal shot at the auto-bid, but the presence of Stevenson — an overwhelming favorite to cruise to the bid — leaves the remaining eight teams to fight it out in the hyper-competitive Pool C.
Meanwhile, the seven teams in the Freedom will automatically be thrown into Pool B, regardless of how they do in the division's postseason tournament. If Pool B remains at three bids, the Freedom's top team (which appears to be Eastern at this point) will be in prime position to snag one of them and even the second-best team (FDU-Florham, perhaps) will be in the hunt. Not to say it will be easy, as there are a number of teams ready to fill the void left by the departure of the NCAC, but certainly a less trying path than Commonwealth's second-best squad.
Bottom line: the Freedom has a greater chance for multiple tourney berths than the Commonwealth. And because the Freedom won't get its AQ until 2015, this will be the case for the next two seasons.
Several of the long-time MAC teams have waited years for the divisional split. Frankly, after having to burn almost their entire schedule on conference games, they deserve it. But it will be a couple more years before all of the league teams are operating on equal footing.