July 15, 2014

Expanding the WD2 Bracket is Realistic Possibility

By Mark Macyk | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter

The Grand Valley State women’s lacrosse team rolled undefeated through the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference for a second straight season this spring, but come Selection Sunday the Lakers were not holding their collective breaths.

“I watched as a fan but I wasn’t exactly biting my nails,” said GVSU head coach Alicia Groveston. Groveston has been on the NCAA regional committee and is the incoming IWLCA President, so she understood just how difficult it is to make the Division II tournament.

“We were realistic about it.”


An expanded 12-team bracket likely would have sent Becca Himes and 16-3 Mercyhurst to the NCAA Tournament. (Mercyhurst Athletics/Ed Mailliard)

GVSU finished 13-5, with four losses coming to NCAA tournament teams, but under the current eight-team format, the Lakers understood: Realistically, this would not be the season the third-year program from Michigan broke into the tournament.

Of course, West Chester thought it was being realistic the year before, when the Rams, fresh off a Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference championship game victory, gathered with the expectation that their names would be called. WCU ended up missing out on a South Region spot, despite conquering the South Regions most difficult division.

At the time, WCU coach Ginny Martino told the West Chester Daily Local: “Not being selected was a blow. We didn’t see it coming.”

Dowling took a walk in West Chester’s shoes this year. The Golden Lions won the East Coast Conference tournament by handing two-time defending NCAA champion LIU Post its first loss in two years. But the victory ended up as Dowling’s season finale.

Like Grand Valley State, Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference champion Regis had few realistic reasons to be hopeful on Selection Sunday, despite an impressive resume. There simply weren’t enough spots in the eight-team tournament for the 14-3 Rangers to have a chance. Similarly, Philadelphia University lost just one game (to NCAA champion Adelphi), but the 17-1 Rams also could not have realistically expected to be dancing, despite their Central Atlantic Collegiate Conference championship.

Those are just the examples of conference champions being left out. Florida Southern, Le Moyne and Mercyhurst all had legitimate NCAA cases. But right now in Division II, there are more playoff teams than playoff spots.

That means for a team like Mercyhurst, which reached the PSAC title game, one non-league loss can sink an entire season, which can be tough on a student-athlete. Still, Mercyhurst captain Becca Himes was able to keep it in perspective.

“The pressure is definitely always on as we realize that losing one game puts us steps away from getting into the tournament,” Himes said. “Despite that, it has mostly positive impacts on the team. It fuels our fire in every practice and game to perform our very best, knowing what is at stake. We all understand the importance of winning to get to the NCAA tournament and know we can do it. It does have its drawbacks, as it definitely adds pressure and anxiety as we prepare for our upcoming season, but once we are in our season, we do an excellent job of focusing on winning and preparing for each and every game to the best of our ability.”

Several coaches have compared it to the BCS, and it makes every game -- from those played after no outdoor practices on snow-lined fields in February to the conference tournaments in May -- matter. But when compared with the numbers across other levels of lacrosse and other Division II sports, it is clear that eight is not enough.

“The Numbers Speak For Themselves”

The size of Division II women’s lacrosse is rapidly catching up to that of Division I, but, as the data below shows, the bracket has not grown to reflect it:

Championship Opportunity Comparison for NCAA Women's Lacrosse from the 2014 Season





 

2014 Bracket Size

No. of Teams*

Bracket to team Ratio

NCAA Participation Percentage

Division I

26

101

3.885

25.743%

Division II

8

84

10.500

9.524%

Division III

36

255

7.083

14.118%

*According to 2014 Women's Lacrosse Pre-Championship Manuals





A quarter of Division I teams reached the NCAA tournament this year. Less than one out 10 made it in WD2. For comparison on a smaller scale, the ACC sent seven teams to the WD2 tournament this year. The PSAC, basically the ACC of Division II, sent only Lock Haven.

“Playing in the PSAC is a great honor and experience knowing that you play in the toughest top to bottom conference in the country,” said Mercyhurst coach Cecil Pilson. “However, it is tough knowing that if you lose one or two games, then your team's hopes of making the NCAA Tournament are over. The downside is that some of the top teams in the country are not rewarded for playing strong schedules and/or having a great season. It is hard to comprehend why Division II women's lacrosse student-athletes are not given the same access as their peers at Division I or even Division III institutions. Ultimately, every season has its ebbs and flows and you have to earn the opportunity to play in the NCAA Tournament regardless of the bracket size.”

It isn’t just the lacrosse world where WD2’s bracket size is dwarfed. Compared with the amount of teams making the tournament in other Division II sports, the disparity is again staggering:

Championship Opportunity Comparison for NCAA Division II Team Sports from the 2013 - 2014 Season





Sport

2014 Bracket Size

No. of Teams*

Bracket to team Ratio

NCAA Participation Percentage

Baseball

48

266

5.542

18.045%

Basketball (M)

64

311

4.859

20.579%

Basketball (W)

64

312

4.875

20.513%

Field Hockey

6

27

4.500

22.222%

Football

24

167

6.958

14.371%

Lacrosse (M)

8

57**

7.125

14.035%

Lacrosse (W)

8

84***

10.500

9.524%

Soccer (M)

35

205

5.857

17.073%

Soccer (W)

48

257

5.354

18.677%

Softball

64

288

4.500

22.222%

Volleyball (W)

64

299

4.672

21.405%

 Total Number of NCAA Division II Members: 315*

* Based on the published NCAA 2012-2013 Participation Rates (NCAA Publications - PR2014.pdf )

** Numbers based on 2014 NCAA Division II Men's Lacrosse Pre-Championships Manual

*** Numbers based on 2014 NCAA Division II Women's Lacrosse Pre-Championships Manual

Women's lacrosse teams have by far the fewest opportunity to reach the Division II tournament. As Groveston said, “The numbers speak for themselves.”

Division II is expanding so rapidly that the tournament is struggling to keep up. In 2010, there were 53 WD2 teams eligible for the NCAA tournament. Next season there will be 93 teams.

Three years ago, the tournament expanded from six teams to eight, and has already yielded impressive results. Lindenwood, the first team from the Central Time Zone to ever reach the WD2 tournament, upset Limestone in the first round of the South Region playoffs this year. Under the old allignment, the Lions would not have reached the postseason. 

“The growth of our sport has been super exciting,” Groveston saud. “We want to make sure the student athletes get that tournament experience.”

“Not an Easy Process”

Expansion will come to the Division II tournament eventually. Just don’t expect a 16-team bracket this May.

In February, the Division II women’s lacrosse committee submitted a request to increase the bracket size from eight to 12, and requested an added day of rest between the semifinal and final round. This plan would keep the current two-region, North/South alignment, with the top two teams in each region earning a bye. The D2 coaches are also hoping that future championship games would be held concurrently with the D1 and D3 tournaments.

Under this alignment, near misses Mercyhurst and Florida Southern could have settled things against Lindenwood and Pfeiffer on the field in the South. It also likely would have rewarded Dowling for its ECC championship stunner in the North.

The NCAA championship committee will meet this week to discuss proposals from all sports. Final decisions will be made in September and any potential expansion would go into effect the following September.

As for future growth, Groveston preached patience. Taking a look at the minutes from February's championship meeting makes the reasoning behind that abundently clear. Baseball presented a 64-team bracket. Football wants to increase to 32 teams. Men’s soccer is looking at a 48-team bracket, or 40-team bracket, or a 38-team bracket, or 36-team bracket.

Bracket expansion is voted on during three-year budgetary cycles, so even sports not experiencing the exponential growth of lacrosse must think about expansion, or sit idle until 2017. There are only a certain amount of funds allocated to Division II tournaments in the budget, and the NCAA must keep every sport happy. So, while the numbers support an expansion of the WD2 tournament, it is no guarantee.

“I feel like lacrosse deserves it all, but the reality is that’s not how it works,” Groveston said. “There are 89 different championships. This is not an easy process… In a perfect world, we’d have 20 teams and be more on par with Division I. Everyone’s like, ‘Why isn’t it happening now?' It’s a process.”

But, if you look at the numbers, tournament expansion is, at the very least, realistic.


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