The number of phone calls from high school basketball coaches two weeks ago was higher than normal.
They were all nervous about what the state playoff format would look like after this year’s COVID-19 protocols were lifted and we could do that fictional “return to normal” big dance. The timing wasn’t coincidental, as MyHorryNews.com had published an article on Feb. 26 regarding, among other things, the size of postseason fields moving forward. Specifically, the South Carolina High School League asked its 219 member schools if bracketed playoffs in sports like football, basketball and volleyball should stay with a reduced number of qualifiers in each classification beginning with the 2021-2022 academic calendar. In a typical year, 32 teams from each classification (save for Class 1A) make the playoffs. This year, it was reduced to 16 to expedite the process and reduce possible pandemic-related side effects.
Of all the coaches I spoke to in the days that followed, not one was in favor of fewer teams.
They made strong arguments, logistically and emotionally, and mostly it broke down to a single point: Cutting the fields down would be a slap in the face to the two-thirds of a sport’s athletes who were left out of a postseason.
How quickly some had forgotten what they were arguing against a year ago. Or the year before that. Or the one before that.
Many of those same men and women have spent a considerable amount of time in the past — often openly — complaining about excessive opening-round travel, blowout after blowout and watered down basketball, all thanks to the SCHSL’s mostly unimaginative strategies.
And while the SCHSL is an easy target — I mean, how hard is it to hold a Zoom meeting and post it on Facebook for all to watch? — none of this is as simple as that. Nor is it really in the governing body’s hands.
The SCHSL is, by design, a reactive bunch, enforcing constitutions it doesn’t write. Commissioner Jerome Singleton, the associate commissioners and the executive and appellate committees all answer to the various class boards (made up of principals and athletics directors) in one way or another. As such, coaches going after “the high school league” is misdirected.
Either way, the last two weeks have been proof that there is a better way than what we’ve been exposed to previously. Because if we have too many complaints about 32 teams, and we hate 16 even more, something’s got to give.
Let’s split the difference.
Before I detail what I believe would be a better use of our time without sacrificing half of our playoff fields, we need to first boot a wide-spread misconception of the 2021 playoff format.
No, the first-round games were not altogether better. A year ago, across the top four classifications (Class A utilized byes), 74% of the first-round games were decided by double digits. This year, that figure was at 70%. A few more games by percentage were closer, but not enough for the “Everyone-gets-a-medal!” crowd to have a real sticking point. There were still a ton of blowouts. It’s unavoidable.
That doesn’t mean we can’t eliminate some of the ridiculousness attached to either model.
This is how a 24-team playoff would look.
The top two teams from each region get automatic berths. They’re rewarded for strong regular seasons, specifically the region portion of their schedules. Those have to mean something.
That’s just the beginning.
Each of the No. 1 seeds automatically earns a first-round bye. They’re further rewarded with two-three extra days of rest. So, if you win your region, you get a free ticket to the second round of the state playoffs, which is basically what happened for anyone who made it this year.
As for filling out the rest of the playoffs, this is where we find our healthy medium between the 32- and 16-team playoffs
A full at-large committee for each classification and with representation from the six pockets of the state will be keeping notes about impressionable games and results all season long.
As the playoffs near, those committees will already have a head start on which teams outside the top two of a respective region have been producing more than others. If a region is especially strong, the committee will be able to select as many of its non-automatic qualifiers as warranted. If a region’s third-place team is 5-13, they’re not getting a bid over a more deserving team that just happened to finish fourth in its region.
Once those eight at-large teams are selected, they’re assigned to the nearest No. 2 seed outside of its regular-season region. This will save on the overall travel budgets as much as it could add to what is possibly a rivalry game between communities that share a closer proximity.
The excitement level of those games would dwarf the constant barrage of cross-state first round games we’ve seen in recent years, and schools wouldn’t be footing the high costs of travel on such a regular basis when we’re almost never witness to the Cinderella stories we want out of playoff hoops.
None of this is reinventing the wheel. In reality, the only reason something like this hasn’t been floated on a state-wide level before is the fear of the unknown, or at least the under-exposed. The classifications, and by extension, the SCHSL, have kept uniform models in place for too long, knowing it was just easier because that’s what we’ve always done. The silver lining of 2020-2021 was that it showed we could change. Let’s do it again.
The old way of the basketball playoff in this state was broken. So, too, was the temporary stop-gap of the pandemic basketball.
Let’s implement a real system that takes time and thought and rewards the game the right way.