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Conference Realignment: How Strong is the Big Ten with Johns Hopkins?

Probably stronger than you'd think, but I'm still not sure that this happens.


I mentioned this in a comment on an earlier piece on this Internet computing page, but it probably deserves reiteration here: Am I the only one that thinks that the Big Ten -- for lacrosse purposes only (I have little interest in CIC/AAU consequences) -- needs Johns Hopkins more than Johns Hopkins needs the Big Ten? With all the chatter that has dominated SB Nation sites with a Big Ten flavor to them -- at Testudo Times and notably at Off Tackle Empire (where Johns Hopkins is only welcome if the Jays make every other school in the Big Ten 1,000-times smarter and, more likely than not, glasses-wearing) -- I get the feeling that Big Ten folks are willing to accept a reality where Hopkins is a special lacrosse-playing member only if certain conditions are met, not the least of which is attending state fairs that feature "fried everything." I'm not exactly sure that Jim Delany is in an undeniable position to make demands of the Jays if the Big Ten is serious at taking a run at forming a lacrosse league; the Jays, I think, hold the cards here, and not just because they have options at their disposal.

In the past I've flipped on the computing machine and attempted to figure out which conferences were making out the best in conference realignment based on conference-member Pythagorean win expectations, both as leagues will be constituted after all the shuffling is done -- never! -- and how things looked before the world started drowning in blood. I'm starting with the 2009 season and using data through 2012, but there are some important notes that accompany the analysis: I ignore the old Great Western Lacrosse League; I don't account for Marquette, Boston University, or Monmouth; and the Big East and NEC calculations, despite both of these leagues potentially disappearing from the universe, are still included and are recognized with their will-be memberships down the line as is currently known.

To get a feel for how a Big Ten lacrosse conference would stack up against the rest of the country, I reran the analysis, both including and excluding Johns Hopkins. (The five teams that would constitute the league, regardless of the Jays' inclusion, are Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, Maryland, and Rutgers.) As things turned out, a Big Ten with Johns Hopkins is notably stronger than one without, although there are important notes that flesh out that idea (they follow the table).

1. ACC 72.91 71.82 1.
2. Big Ten (with Johns Hopkins) 57.21 N/A N/A +8
3. Ivy 56.38 56.38 2. -1
4. Patriot 50.87 49.15 6. +2
5. Colonial 50.23 50.82 3. -2
6. ECAC 47.11 50.17 4. -2
7. Big East 43.07 49.96 5. -2
8. America East 42.69 42.69 7. -1
9. Northeast 37.40 38.91 8. -1
10. MAAC 34.50 33.10 9. -1

Exciting, right? (No.) Some quick thoughts:

  • When I ran the analysis excluding Johns Hopkins -- a five-team Big Ten with only current league members that actually play Division I lacrosse -- the Big Ten ranked third overall at a 54.59 win expectation percentage. That isn't bad -- in fact, it's pretty respectable -- but there are two issues with that analysis right now: (1) It considers only one year of Michigan playing Division I lacrosse, and while hopes are high for the Wolverines, Michigan's future is best described as "opaque" in terms of a development arc timeline; and (2) There's no way that the Big Ten is going to support a five-team lacrosse conference (the only way any conference -- not just the Big Ten -- supports a league that doesn't qualify for an automatic invitation to the NCAA Tournament is if that conference is on par with the ACC, and the Big Ten isn't in that tier of the hierarchy), so a sixth member -- either a home-grown program that will be new to Division I and likely struggle for at least a period of years or an out-of-left-field program that likely isn't the caliber of Johns Hopkins (or even Maryland, Penn State, or Ohio State), thereby enraging Big Ten partisans even more -- would need to be brought into the fold, probably deflating the league's overall win expectation. So, basically, that ranking right now isn't necessarily what it may be two to three years down the line without Johns Hopkins. Take that for what it's worth.
  • Johns Hopkins provides more than simply an increase in the league's overall strength in terms of Pythagorean win expectation (although it is significant enough to overcome conferences like the Ivy League -- with nationally-elite programs like Cornell and Princeton -- and the Patriot League -- with programs like Loyola (in 2014), Army, Navy, and upstarts like Colgate, Lehigh, and Bucknell); it's that the Jays brings a year-in and year-out national title contender into the fold, a fact that all members can benefit from. In concert with Maryland, Johns Hopkins can serve as an immediate tent pole program for the league's other members to build around as the Jays' lull cycles are muted (much like the Big East's plan when it finally convinced Syracuse to form a lacrosse league). Johns Hopkins also provides immediate strength of schedule increases to the conference's members, something that isn't guaranteed in a league constituted with a bunch of "good" teams and only one hyper-elite. The Big Ten needs that from a competitive standpoint; it gives the league instant credibility and a very strong base to build from. There is instant respect for the Big Ten with Hopkins in the fold; without Hopkins, it's a bunch of teams with one program with its feet firmly entrenched in the national consciousness (not unlike Big East lacrosse at its sunrise). Does Delany really want to pursue something Big East-ish? Eh, I don't know about that. Johns Hopkins is the gatekeeper to immediate respect; it is in the power position right now.
  • Even if Hopkins stares at this table and thinks, "Well, if we go to the Big Ten, that's not exactly like pouring acid in our eyes for fun," there is the big picture issue: The presumed overarching reason for the Jays looking to affiliate with a league is so that it can get a crack at an auto-bid to the NCAA Tournament in a shrinking at-large pool. Why knock heads in the Big Ten -- where you need to deal with Maryland on a yearly basis for conference supremacy and burgeoning programs like Penn State and Ohio State -- when you could join the Big East (or whatever it becomes) and have an easier path to May while keeping travel costs light? It's the "I don't need this sh*t!" approach to realignment, and with Hopkins' ability to get whatever nonconference games it wants, it can have the best of both worlds: A (relatively) easy shot at automatic qualification while keeping overall strength of schedule high and budget concerns in check. (Full disclosure: I don't believe that the easy route is necessarily in Hopkins' DNA. As such, I don't think that the Jays are all that concerned with identifying the path of least resistance to get to the NCAA Tournament. Then again, I never thought that Johns Hopkins would ever consider joining a conference, so my thoughts on genetics could be way off base.) Now, the Big East (or whatever it becomes) with the Jays isn't particularly amazing -- the Pythagorean win expectation for that league with Hopkins only registers at 48.16 percent, a weak league compared to its peers (albeit with potential in Georgetown, St. John's and Villanova). (Notably, an ECAC with Johns Hopkins isn't all that much stronger, only registering a 49.95 percent value with the Jays in the fold.) But the position remains: Johns Hopkins can make the Big Ten a player, but does Hopkins want to make the Big Ten a player with other options existing that address other potential concerns?

Or I'm totally wrong about this, overstating what Hopkins means and ignoring the potential for Hopkins' ESPNU agreement to fall apart. Whatever. I'm still of the opinion -- right now -- that Hopkins ultimately stands pat and remains an independent, but I don't think it's going to be because the Big Ten tries to muscle the Jays around. It's just that I think Hopkins' best position is to navigate its own waters.