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NCAA Lacrosse Tournament Bracket Expansion on the Horizon?

Could an 18- or 20-team field magically appear in 2014?

Lost in the shuffle last week was a release from the NCAA -- taking a hiatus from having garbage thrown at their offices -- noting a change in play-in policy for its Division I championships. Terry Foy -- the hardest working man in lacrosse -- of Inside Lacrosse provides some important context to the release, indicating that an expanded lacrosse field may terrorize May as early as 2014:

The NCAA announced this week the Championships Cabinet's policy change regarding the status of play-in games that effectively paves the way for an expanded 18- or 20-team men's lacrosse Division I tournament as soon as 2014.

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The major catalyst for change in men's lacrosse is the addition of the A-Sun and ACC automatic qualifiers in 2014 (and the impending Big Ten AQ in 2015, though that'll be offset by the elimination of the ECAC's AQ in the same season). NCAA bylaws mandate that at least 50% of a tournament field be at-large qualifiers; with the number of AQ conferences rising to 10 next season, that means that the bracket must expand to either include 10 at-large berths or “eliminate” two AQs prior to the bracket officially beginning.

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Sources have told IL that the Men's Lacrosse Championship Committee is talking this week and in the coming weeks to determine the policy's practical applications, but it seems likely based on the changes that the four-lowest rated AQ teams (this year, that would have been Bryant, Detroit, Towson and Lehigh) will play a mid-week game after Selection Sunday with the winners advancing to a pre-determined line on the bracket (presumably vs. the top two seeds).

Bracket expansion is a good thing. In fact, it should come with doves being released into the sky and children across the world joining hands and singing a song of love and joy. Division I lacrosse has reached the point where the quality of its teams has exceeded the limitations of a 16-team field. And while a 20-team field would constitute almost a third of Division I lacrosse's total participants, a 16-team tournament just doesn't make much sense in the climate the game has generated.

The issue, then, is how play-in games are determined. Off the top of my head, there are a handful of options:

  • The option that sources have indicated to Foy: Making the four lowest-rated automatic qualifiers duke it out for a spot in the field proper.
  • Making the four lowest-rated teams -- in the overall, regardless of auto-bid status -- play their way into the field.
  • Making the four lowest-rated at-large teams play their way into the field.
  • Making a mix of the two lowest-rated auto-bid teams square off against the two lowest-rated at-large teams as a path to the bracket.

There are pros and cons to all of these. Personally, I like the mix of having the lowest-rated at-large teams play the lowest-rated automatic qualifiers. That way, you don't spit on the existence of automatic qualification -- an important growth factor for college lacrosse -- and you also make teams that didn't have an exceptional season absolutely earn their way into the bracket. It's a decent compromise, assuming that the NCAA can make it work from a bracket perspective.