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Conference Realignment: Maryland, Rutgers and the Great Unknown of Big Ten Lacrosse

It's a crazy planet, people. Spinning in space is fun!

Rob Carr

While folks at Maryland and Rutgers are staring deep into the eyes of the Big Ten Conference, eyes with pupils in the shape of "$" signs, the mutual gazing isn't all that different than peering into the abyss. Therein lies the unknown, and if Maryland and Rutgers align themselves with Midwest concerns, lacrosse for the two schools -- and the Big Ten in the overall -- must struggle with terrifying thoughts of a harsh reality.

Even if it’s just an assumption at this point, it is important to reiterate the issue: Should Maryland and Rutgers leave the ACC and Big East, respectively, the possibility of both school's needing to play as an independent -- for an indeterminable period of time -- is real. Neither the Big East nor ACC is likely to keep either school in the fold as a lacrosse-only -- that'd be inviting your ex on a date with your current girlfriend after she brutally broke your heart -- and with the Big Ten not currently sponsoring men's lacrosse, both the Terps and Scarlet Knights are functional ronin roaming the countryside. This is likely a bigger issue for Rutgers than Maryland, but it's an issue for both in some form or manner.

Hate the Game and the Player: Someone sent me an email yesterday arguing that Maryland and Rutgers would be fine because they could always hook on to the ECAC or another conference to support lacrosse pursuits. There's just one issue with that idea: Why would the ECAC or MAAC or whatever other conference take on Maryland or Rutgers if Maryland or Rutgers could eventually ditch that league for what could be a Big Ten lacrosse conference in the future (more on that in a minute)? These conferences would potentially be punishing their current memberships for a short term "gain" in adding the Terps and Scarlet Knights. Leagues may open their arms to Maryland or Rutgers, but I'm not 100 percent positive that there isn't going to be reticence about confederation with these two schools. The immediate result, of course, is . . .

. . . Independence: Maryland has never been in a league with an automatic invitation to the NCAA Tournament, so existing on its own means isn't going to be much of a change for the Terps. With a recognized name in the game, Maryland probably won't have trouble getting games on their schedule, although potentially icy relationships with Duke, North Carolina, and Virginia (if not Syracuse and Notre Dame) could change who and where Terps play their games. As for Rutgers, the Scarlet Knights' situation isn't as strong as Maryland's. With Brian Brecht in only his second year at the head of the program, the Scarlet Knights need guaranteed games against solid competition to increase their profile and continue program momentum. Inclusion in a conference with an automatic invitation to the NCAA Tournament is both a safety valve against difficulty in scheduling -- which Rutgers doesn't have leverage in as a school outside of the established elite that everyone wants to play -- and a brass ring -- a shot here and a shot there and BOOM! . . . you've stolen a trip to the NCAA Tournament maybe a year or so before you're actually ready to compete with the best. This isn't a perfect situation for Rutgers, and they could struggle operating in a situation that doesn't suit their historic modus operandi. The best way to fix these issues, of course, is . . .

. . . Big Ten Lacrosse Time: This seems like a no-brainer, right? With three schools in the conference currently sponsoring men's lacrosse -- Michigan, Penn State, and Ohio State -- the potential additions of Rutgers and Maryland pushes the league's membership to five, one fewer than the mandatory six necessary to confer automatic invitation status on a conference. The three current Big Ten schools really don't have an incentive to leave their current leagues to join an affiliation that isn't on a path to auto-bid status due to lack of membership (in short, it’s a lot easier for Penn State to get to the NCAA Tournament as the THUNDERDOME! champion rather than trying to elbow their way into May in an already crowded at-large pool), but if the Big Ten were to pursue a league with a lacrosse-only member (not likely) or if another Big Ten school would pursue varsity lacrosse (like Michigan State or Minnesota or whoever), the incentive to organize and wait the two years for automatic invitation status is worth the effort. With, at least, 30 regular season conference games and three league tournament games, the Big Ten Network would have additional spring inventory to unload on two areas of the country -- the Mid-Atlantic (thanks to Maryland and Rutgers) and the Midwest (thanks to everybody else in the league) -- that support lacrosse or are growing in their support of the game. It all makes perfect sense, it's just that until one of these other Big Ten schools decides to offer varsity men's lacrosse the league can't totally pursue the idea. And that's a little rough for Maryland and Rutgers.

It’s a weird situation, full of “maybe” and “what about. . . .” When football drives the bus, these sorts of things tend to happen.