Automatic qualifiers valuable and necessary for college lacrosse

As the 2013 NCAA men's basketball tournament continues, a couple prominent voices have proposed changing how the field of 68 is composed.

Former Maryland coach Gary Williams and ESPN analyst Jay Bilas have suggested eliminating automatic qualifiers and simply selecting the top 68 teams for the tournament.


That got me thinking: could the same case be made for college lacrosse?

Currently, half of the 16-team field in the tournament will be filled with programs that win their respective conference tournaments and the accompanying automatic bids. The leagues that have automatic qualifiers are the America East, the Big East, the Colonial Athletic Association, the Eastern College Athletic Conference, the Ivy League, the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, the Northeast Conference and the Patriot League.


As the sport continues to grow, is the time ripe for the powers-that-be to alter the makeup of the tournament? Not according to ESPN analyst Paul Carcaterra.

"AQs are necessary in lacrosse," the former Syracuse All-American midfielder wrote in an email Tuesday morning. "We are a growing sport and we need to embrace the expansion of the game and allow non-traditional teams from up-and-coming programs and conferences to compete in the tournament. There are still plenty of at-large spots available for teams who take care of business in the regular season to extend their seasons."

At least two coaches agree with Carcaterra.

Loyola's Charley Toomey, whose team will move from the ECAC to the Patriot League after this season, said the automatic qualifiers level the playing field for young and new programs that may find it difficult to schedule contests against some of the bluebloods, who are concerned about affecting their RPIs and strength of schedule ratings.

"The top teams are going to want to have a quality schedule, and if it comes down to just teams with a strong RPI and a strong schedule, those teams are really going to be hard-pressed to get teams to travel to them," he said. "So to have those AQs is a strong thing for an athletic director to say, 'Hey, this might be our meal ticket to the NCAAs.' I think it'd be great for the teams that have strong schedules and strong RPIs and don't hesitate to attract quality opponents. But for some of these new programs, I think it would be very difficult for them, and I don't know that it would be the right thing for our sport."

Maryland's John Tillman -- whose team plays in the Atlantic Coast Conference, which is not eligible for an automatic qualifier because it doesn't have the required six programs -- said automatic bids encourage new schools considering adding the sport to its stable of varsity programs.

"We're a sport that is trying to grow, and automatic bids are great for us because we want new programs to feel like they can come in and compete quickly," Tillman said. "If I'm an athletic director and I have a chance to join a conference and am able to compete and at the end of the year, I can win two games and get in to the NCAA tournament, I might be more inclined to start a program. I might be more inclined to support that program a little bit more. If we don't have the automatic bids, then I guess my initial concern would be, how would that stunt the growth of our sport and different programs? I'm all for the top teams trying to make it, but I think right now, knowing where we want to go as a sport, we would not want to do that and also limit the expansion to other colleges and universities."