Could NJIT and Robert Morris' conference moves create something larger?
A pair of mid-major institutions are packing their bags and moving to different conferences.
NJIT announced they'll become the 10th member of the America East beginning July 1. The Highlanders were previously a member of the Atlantic Sun, whose members are primarily in the southeastern part of the United States. Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia is the conference's northernmost member. They were also an affiliate member in the NEC for men's lacrosse for less than a year.
Robert Morris will reportedly move to the Horizon league, with an official announcement potentially this week, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. The Colonials have been a charter member of the NEC back in 1981 when the conference was known as the ECAC Metro Conference. The Horizon League does not sponsor men's lacrosse, although Cleveland State and Detroit Mercy are conference members that field the sport.
Both of these moves are big positives for their basketball programs, as both schools will be moving up in competition. NJIT is slowly growing in reputation after going 0-29 in 2007-08. They defeated a ranked Michigan team in 2014 as a 24.5-point underdog. Robert Morris just opened their new UPMC Events Center last year, one of the largest and most modern arenas in the NEC.
It's also a big positive in terms of geography, especially for NJIT. The Highlanders will be playing against foes within the northeast instead of the southeast. Plus, the America East is able to extend their footprint into New Jersey. As for Robert Morris, the Colonials will be playing more midwest opponents over Tri-State and other east coast schools.
So that's some of the impact for the schools and conferences overall. But what about for men's lacrosse?
For NJIT, it's a small step up in competition. Instead of the likes of Wagner and LIU, the Highlanders will be competing against Albany, Stony Brook, UMBC, and Vermont. It will also be their first conference in which they'll play in actual conference games. This past season was cut short just before NEC conference play began. Basically, NJIT entered a restaurant, got drinks and an appetizer, and then left for a better restaurant.
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As for the conference, there's some good and some bad.
The good: Potentially eliminating the bye week in conference play. With bye weeks in March and April when conference play is going on through the country, it can be really difficult to schedule a nonconference opponent.
The bad: NJIT hasn't been very good since their first season back in 2015. RPI and SOS numbers for teams will be worse if the Highlanders don't show improvement. That could play a small role in terms of NCAA Tournament seeding for the conference tournament winner.
Now the fun part comes with Robert Morris and the NEC. There's nothing of note with the Horizon Conference since they'd have three teams out of a potential six for an automatic qualifier.
First with the NEC. With NJIT gone, they now have nine schools, tied with the Patriot League for the most in a lacrosse conference. They debuted a two-division format last year with five teams in each division. That never got used due to the shortened season.
Would the NEC be open to keeping Robert Morris in the conference? In relationship terms, Robert Morris broke up with the NEC but men's and women's lacrosse could try and stay in as an affiliate member aka "we still want to be friends." The NEC could say no and still be fine with eight members in their conference.
What if Robert Morris doesn't return to the NEC? They could play as an independent. The downside is that they would barely have a chance to qualify for the NCAA Tournament with the lack of conference. They made the last two thanks to winning the NEC Tournament.
The other current option is to try and join the MAAC. They'd join Canisius, Detroit Mercy, and St. Bonaventure as conference members outside of the main Tri-State area, but it would also bring the number of programs to nine. The Colonials reportedly considered joining the MAAC before settling on the Horizon League.
Another option could be forming a lacrosse-only conference with other schools in the same area, potentially a revival of the ECAC Lacrosse League. The key would be grabbing affiliate members of other conferences.
Here's how it would work.
Robert Morris would join fellow independent Cleveland State and MAAC affiliate member Detroit Mercy, who are also Horizon League members. That's three right there.
For two more members, let's keep it in the MAAC and the NEC. St. Bonaventure, a MAAC affiliate member and Atlantic 10 member, is a good geographical fit. Add in Hobart, an NEC affiliate member that's in Division III for all other sports and an ECAC alum, and you have five. And the big part is that the MAAC and NEC would still have at least six members and keep their AQ eligibility.
The tough part, outside of persuading all the schools to join in, would be getting a sixth team. There's not a lot of options currently available, but one that could work would be Hampton. They're still committed to the program according to a source, but are looking for their third head coach in as many years. They've yet to record a win against a Division I program and are an outlier to where the other five teams are located. But that gets Hampton a home and everyone a chance to play for a spot in the NCAA Tournament. That would be the easiest choice.
The sixth school might not even have a men's lacrosse program. That school could be Central Michigan, who's in an interesting situation.
In mid-May, Central Michigan announced the discontinuation of their men's indoor and outdoor track and field programs due to financial challenges caused by COVID-19. CMU will save about $300,000 a year in the short-term, and more than double that a year in the long-term.
With the cuts, Central Michigan is still at the NCAA minimum of 16 sports offered. But it falls to only five men's sports offered, one below the NCAA Division I minimum of six. The NCAA approved a waiver for CMU to stay at five men's sports for the next two academic years, where the university will have had to finalized a plan to add a new men's sport.
Central Michigan AD Michael Alford told The Detroit News he's looking at three or four sports, one of which isn't track and field. Golf is the cheapest option, with the women's budget being about $240,000 in 2017-18. They play at Mt. Pleasant Country Club and could share the facility with a men's team. Golf also requires only 4.5 scholarships. Some other options could be soccer and volleyball, which are women's sports at the school.
Adding men's lacrosse would also make sense, as CMU offers women's lacrosse. Despite having the second-largest roster amongst men's sports, lacrosse offers 12.6 scholarships per team. However, it can drive enrollment and lead to more money to the school as Terry Foy of Inside Lacrosse explained. But it is a little expensive to operate with travel, equipment, and potentially new or renovated facilities to worry about. With the sport growing in the midwest, it would make sense for Central Michigan to catch up with Michigan and Detroit Mercy.
In a perfect world, this would be how the new lacrosse conference would look geographically.
A conference spanning over four states seems like a possibility. But we don't live in a perfect world and making this work will be really difficult, especially with Central Michigan.
But nevertheless, a couple of small changes in men's lacrosse could potentially lead to a couple of big additions that would benefit the sport for years to come.