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College Lacrosse

Despite outcry over Notre Dame and Duke being left out, don’t expect NCAA men’s lacrosse tournament to expand anytime soon

The reaction was swift, growing and fierce.

When the 18-team field for the NCAA Division I men’s lacrosse tournament was revealed Sunday night on ESPNU without Duke and Notre Dame in the bracket, critics pounced, flooding social media with vociferous defenses of the Blue Devils and Fighting Irish, withering disparagement of Ohio State and Harvard — the two teams that benefited at Duke and Notre Dame’s expense — and unwarranted invectives at the selection committee and chair Donna Woodruff, who is also the athletic director at Loyola Maryland.

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In the midst of the furor, the subject of expanding the field size for the tournament was broached. Even coach John Tillman, whose Maryland squad earned its fourth overall No. 1 seed in the past six NCAA postseasons, endorsed the idea of adding more teams.

“To me, this speaks to we probably need to — if we could — look at some sort of expansion because I think there are a number of teams beyond just Notre Dame and Duke — you could look at Jacksonville, what a great year they had — and you could say they deserve to be looked at. I think that would be a good argument,” he said late Sunday night. “Man, if we could go two to four more teams, I think that would be great for the sport.”

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Would tournament expansion cure any and all ills? Not necessarily, according to those deeply invested in the sport.

“I think there are arguments on both sides of the aisle, and you could make the case for either one,” said Big Ten Network and ESPN analyst Mark Dixon, a former midfielder at Johns Hopkins. “Everyone gets in an uproar and a fury after Selection Sunday, and I think the conversation will probably continue throughout the tournament, on broadcasts and in podcasts and written material. But it will eventually be forgotten about and put on the back burner until it happens again next year.”

Here are some reasons why tournament expansion is not a popular option at this time.

The field is already appropriately sized for the sport

Of the 73 schools that sponsor Division I men’s lacrosse, 18 are included in the season-ending NCAA Tournament. That’s a 24.7% composition.

That might not sound like much, but consider that only 68 of 359 men’s basketball teams compete in the NCAA postseason — an 18.9% composition. The number is even lower at the Football Bowl Subdivision level, where just four of 131 teams (3.1%) participate in the College Football Playoff.

“Division I lacrosse is already at its maximum in terms of playoff participation,” said ESPN analyst Quint Kessenich, who was an All-America goalkeeper at Johns Hopkins. “We have one of the highest — if not the highest — playoff participation percentage based on the number of schools that play D1 lacrosse and how many are in the tournament. So expansion is not feasible.”

Tim Leonard, who spent two years on the selection committee before chairing the panel in 2020 and 2021, said adding more teams to the field was not a priority among coaches.

“There were always things that would come up when we would have our end-of-the-year meeting in the summer when we would get feedback, and sometimes that would come up,” said Leonard, the former athletic director at Towson. “But there were a number of things that would come up — from location to how you do the first round to how we choose the teams. There wasn’t any kind of overwhelming discussion about it or momentum to do that while I was on the committee.”

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Expanding the field would be cost- and logistics-prohibitive

For decades, the tournament was scheduled to conclude Memorial Day with the national holiday serving as a poignant backdrop for the sport.

Adding teams would force the NCAA to consider moving championship weekend off Memorial Day weekend. Many teams already open their seasons in early February to ensure that they can squeeze in as many games as possible before the end of the regular season, and coaches loathe returning to the time when midweek games were routine, especially during the conference portions of their schedules.

Dixon said extending the postseason beyond Memorial Day might place a burden on the universities.

“Memorial Day has become a destination for college lacrosse,” he said. “Logistically speaking, you’d have to keep the student-athletes on campus and house the kids that don’t have off-campus living. Dining services are shut down and security and all of that other kind of stuff.”

Kessenich said the NCAA has consistently resisted moving championship weekend away from Memorial Day to cap costs, which fits the organization’s measure of arranging the field so that only two teams must travel more than 400 miles by airplane to first-round games.

“Look at it from a business standpoint,” he said. “Who is footing the bill for these games? Who’s paying for the travel? Who’s paying for the hotels? Who’s paying for the food? Who’s paying for the per diem during the week? The NCAA is spending a lot of money to make this thing happen. Who’s paying for stadium security and field maintenance for the quarterfinals, semis and final? This is quite an undertaking, and I don’t think anyone’s in a position right now where they’re throwing around money. If we were getting 10,000 [fans] for every first-round game and 20,000 for the quarters, and 50,000 for the semis and final, I think I’d be more inclined to add teams to the tournament. But I don’t think the attendance warrants that.”

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Adding more teams would devalue the regular season

Much like the NFL’s 17-game schedule, every game looms in importance for teams, many of which try to line up 12 to 16 games. The top 10 programs in the latest Inside Lacrosse media poll averaged 14.4 games, and the top 20 averaged 14.9 games.

Leonard said expanding the tournament could open the door for weaker teams to qualify for the postseason. One example of this occurring took place last winter when critics complained that the NFL’s decision to include seven teams in the AFC and NFC playoffs resulted in lopsided outcomes, especially by those teams that earned the seventh and final spots.

“You don’t want to get it much bigger or else it really kind of waters down the tournament,” he said. “I think there is room to do something. I think you can make a minor expansion, but I don’t think you would want to make it much bigger because there’s just not many teams that actually play lacrosse.”

Kessenich warned that adding more berths to the NCAA Tournament might give a few select teams enough incentive to think they can afford a loss in the regular season without severely impacting their overall profile to the selection committee.

“It would devalue the regular season,” he said. “I think we have a nice balance right now where the regular season actually matters and games have significance. We don’t want to get into a situation where everybody’s getting into the tournament after having mediocre seasons. Regular-season games have to be important.”

Based on the texts and tweets Kessenich and Dixon receive every May, tournament expansion might continue to be a topic of debate until more schools sponsor Division I lacrosse.

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For Duke coach John Danowski, widening the field won’t placate his team’s disappointment at being left out. But he also understands that they had a season-long chance to author their own fate.

“We’re not singing the blues here,” he said. “We lost six games, and according to the committee, two of those losses were to teams that traditionally had good seasons in Syracuse and Loyola, and those would have been good losses in the past. Not this year. That’s just kind of how it goes.”

NCAA men’s lacrosse tournament

Opening round

  • Vermont 15, Manhattan 3
  • Delaware 20, Robert Morris 8

First round

  • Boston University at No. 5 seed Princeton, Saturday, noon
  • Richmond at No. 3 seed Penn, Saturday, 2:30 p.m.
  • Saint Joseph’s at No. 4 seed Yale, Saturday, 5 p.m.
  • Virginia at No. 8 seed Brown, Saturday, 7:30 p.m.
  • Vermont at No. 1 seed Maryland, Sunday, noon
  • Harvard at No. 6 seed Rutgers, Sunday, 2:30 p.m.
  • Ohio State at No. 7 seed Cornell, Sunday, 5 p.m.
  • Delaware at No. 2 seed Georgetown, Sunday, 7:30 p.m.

NCAA women’s lacrosse tournament

First round

  • Drexel at No. 8 seed Stony Brook, Friday, noon
  • Rutgers vs. Saint Joseph’s, Friday, 2:30 p.m. (at Stony Brook, New York)
  • Duke vs. Johns Hopkins, Friday, 3 p.m. (at College Park)
  • Mount St. Mary’s at No. 6 seed Loyola Maryland, Friday, 3 p.m.
  • Denver vs. Vermont, Friday, 4 p.m. (at Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts)
  • Fairfield at No. 5 seed Syracuse, Friday, 4 p.m.
  • Southern California vs. Virginia, Friday, 5 p.m. (at Chapel Hill, North Carolina)
  • Mercer at No. 7 seed Florida, Friday, 5 p.m.
  • Central Michigan at No. 4 seed Northwestern, Friday, 5 p.m.
  • Massachusetts vs. Princeton, Friday, 7 p.m.
  • Connecticut vs. James Madison, Friday, 7 p.m. (at Loyola Maryland)
  • Jacksonville vs. Stanford, Friday, 7:30 p.m. (at Gainesville, Florida)
  • Notre Dame vs. Michigan, Friday, 8 p.m.

Second round

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  • Southern California/Virginia at No. 1 seed North Carolina, Sunday, noon
  • Denver/Vermont at No. 3 seed Boston College, Sunday, 1 p.m.
  • Duke/Johns Hopkins at No. 2 seed Maryland, Sunday, 2:30 p.m.

First round

MARYLAND MEN VS. VERMONT

Sunday, noon

TV: ESPNU


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