With the 2014 high school basketball tournament less than a month away, I thought it would be fun this week to take a trip back in time. Let’s go back to the 20th century, shall we? Picture this scene: a time before the Heal points were updated almost instantly online, heck an era when the internet was still in its infancy. Coaches throughout Eastern Maine hoping to get in the good graces of point guru Mike Savage of Channel 5. Mike was one of the few people in the state who kept track of the Heal points and would often guard the golden standings like a mother bear protecting her cubs.
On the Sunday night following the regular season, Tim Throckmorton would be one of the first to announce the tournament field. Fans throughout the region watched in anticipation to see whether or not their favorite team made the final cut. Teams rejoiced yet some good teams seasons ended with the disappointment they would not be headed to Bangor.
The final few weeks of the season brought a palpable buzz to many gyms for key match-ups involving teams on the bubble of making the postseason. The final weeks of the regular season were nearly as exciting as the tournament itself. Of course the final goal was to win the championship but in this era just making the tournament was an accomplishment.
Flash forward a few years. Many thought: we have such a great thing with the tournament, let’s expand it and have more teams participate. Thus came the era of the open tournament, followed by allowing 2/3 of the teams to qualify. Despite a two-year hiatus, in which 50% of the teams qualified in 2010 and 2011, we of course have a format in which 2/3 of teams currently quality for postseason play.
In examining eleven years of the expanded tournament format, the gains have been dubious at best. Sure, I’ll attend prelim games on each night prior to the big show at the Cross Insurance Center. There’s no question they’ll be some exciting games in which one team goes on elated and the other’s season ends with a heartbreaking loss.
While the gains have been minimal, we have lost significantly more than what has been gained. The regular season has been diminished to nothing more than eliminating the weakest teams. Under the 2/3 rule, generally speaking those final few teams, rather then beating good teams throughout the season tend to back into to those spots. We have traded what was a season long quest to reach a final destination into one or two nights of instant excitement. Key games to determine whether a team is in or out has been replaced by contests which decide whether a team hosts or is on the road for a prelim or who they will play in said prelim. Really inspiring stuff, huh?
There are many knowledgeable basketball people and school administrators who I respect greatly, who are in favor of the open tournament or current format. In my discussions with them, many bring what seem to be sound reasoning for an expanded postseason. Today, we’ll look at some of the more common arguments for supporting more teams in the field and why, in my opinion, their logic is flawed.
- Heal Points are Not Fair and Schedules are Unequal
Because a system to determine teams is not completely equal, does that mean we totally eliminate any standard or lower those requirements to the lower common denominator? Of course not. Using this rationale Harvard University should have an open admission policy. After all, when comparing applicants, students from around the world come in with different educational experiences and opportunities. Some come from prestigious private prep schools, others from inner-city public high schools. Grades are determined differently, cultures in schools are different, etc. So why don’t they accept everyone? By letting everyone in, it lowers the prestige of attending Harvard, just as expanding the tournament lessens the aura of being in the tournament.
While Heal points do have their minor quirks, here are some statistics to ponder: In the eleven years of the expanded tournament format, either open or with 2/3 of teams qualifying, there have been 176 regional champions crowned in boys and girls basketball throughout the state. All 176 champions finished in the top half of the Heal point standings. Furthermore, in Eastern Maine boys basketball since 1961, in all four classes over 85 percent of regional champions have been a top three seed.
The numbers overwhelmingly prove that under the 50% qualifying rule the excellent and very good teams will make the field regardless of schedule, etc. Of course there will be years when we will quibble over whether the ninth or tenth place team is better then the seventh or eighth place team. Isn’t this kind of akin to saying ‘well, my C student is better then your C student.”? A fifty percent qualifier adequately protects the great teams while also maintaining the integrity of the regular reason.
- What about key Injuries During the Season?
Most basketball teams carry roughly 12-13 players. That’s right, a basketball team. Sometimes the 8th through final players are called upon to be more than human victory cigars to put in at the end of a lopsided contest. Sometimes teams have to overcome adversity on the way to their ultimate goal of getting to the postseason and ultimately a championship. Isn’t this a life lesson athletics is supposed to teach, to rise above adverse situations and find a way to persevere?
Speaking of injuries, conversely, what about the team that’s had an outstanding season and the flu bug hits at prelim time or has a key injury for their play-in game? The team in the previous example at least has an entire season to compensate for the loss of a player or players.
- The NCAA Tournament is an Open Tournament
Such a rationale neither speaks to the merits or the weaknesses of the format. I’ll be the first to say, I love March Madness. While the tournament is a great event, it’s not necessarily great for the sport at large. Instead of being the crescendo at the end of a season, it is devoid of context from the regular season for most fans. Having teams actually qualify for their post season conference tournaments would greatly enhance the sport from November to February and in turn even expand interest in March.
- We’re only Adding One or Two More Dates so What Difference Does it Make?
It makes a huge difference because it fundamentally alters the meaning of games throughout the entire season. We’ve traded a season’s journey into a night or two of instantaneous excitement.
- It Takes the Pressure off to win During the Regular Season and Allows you to Develop Players
Life is full of pressure. Athletics serve as a crucible for putting young people in situations, though not life and death, where they learn to deal with duress. At the varsity level there should be a certain amount of pressure to win. How to deal with and cope with the successes and struggles is one of the life lessons we should be helping our student-athletes work through. While at the varsity levels players continue to develop, if the sub-varsity coaches are doing their jobs properly, this should be one of their main responsibilities.
- An Expanded Tournament Accounts for Teams Peaking at the End of the Season
Teams progress and improve to varying degrees throughout the season. If all games do count in the standing then teams should be prepared at the start of their countable games to hit the ground running, so to speak.
The great things in life are generally achieved over time, through months and sometimes years of hard work. They are not obtained ordinarily in a one-shot deal. This is a key life lesson that has an opportunity to be passed along but unfortunately under the current format we are missing that chance.