Opinion: Time to Tweak High School Sports Tournament Format

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires.com Sports
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On Saturday, the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association will release the seeds for the 2024 state basketball tournaments.
This marks the third time the MIAA has conducted its basketball post-season under the statewide tournament format that the commonwealth’s principals and athletic directors approved in February 2020.
Three years in, two things are apparent about the statewide tournament: 1. It works. 2. It remains flawed.
It is hard, at this point, to argue that the seeding method used by the MIAA to create a 32-team tournament field statewide is unfair. There are occasional upsets, but by and large, the higher-seeded teams win, and the closer the teams are to one another in seeding (No. 16 vs. No. 17, for example), the more competitive the games are.
And the top seeds generally make it to the state semi-finals, as one would expect if the seeding accurately predicts the results on the court, ice or field.
The problem is – as predicted before the MIAA member schools took this step – the statewide tournament creates absurd travel scenarios.
Sure, it produced one cute story: the Monument Mountain volleyball team going to Nantucket in November 2021. And the Boston Globe got some mileage out of covering what likely was a fun trip for the Spartans.
But there have been far more games played that did not get splashy stories in the state’s biggest newspaper.
There are numerous instances of schools from Berkshire County having to trek across the state to Eastern Mass to play an opponent in the tournament’s “play-in” round or first round and Eastern Mass schools doing likewise – in the same sport, in the same division, in the same year. One imagines these buses passing one another on the Mass Pike and players of roughly the same ability waving to each other as they travel three hours in opposite directions to play their games.
The play-in, or preliminary, round is used in most sports and divisions each season because rather than just take the top 32 teams based on power rankings, the MIAA also allows teams ranked 33rd and lower to qualify for the tournament if they have at least a .500 winning percentage (football is a notable exception to that rule).
All that crisscrossing the state does not lead to exciting tournament runs by Cinderella teams; a high majority of teams that win in the play-in round lose in the Round of 32 and a high majority of teams in the bottom of the 32-team bracket lose in the first round. But the excessive travel does produce several detrimental effects: loss of time in school (or lost sleep) for teams traveling for midweek games, higher transportation costs and less ability for parents and fans to see their kids and friends compete.
Meanwhile, the statewide tournament was a death knell to one of the great rituals of high school sport in Massachusetts for decades: the sectional final.
Because Massachusetts did have a statewide tournament prior to 2020. It just was a tournament where teams competed in a series of four sectionals – North, South, Central and West – with the winners meeting in the state semi-finals.
That process was not perfect, and it created disparities. For example, in 2018, two years before the statewide framework, 17 teams qualified for the Division 1 South Sectional in girls basketball, while just four qualified for the Division 1 sectional in the West (basically the 413 area code), where there are fewer large schools.
That hardly seems fair to the schools in the South.
In order to preserve the “feel” of the old Western Mass tournament, the athletic directors of the Pioneer Valley Interscholastic Athletic Conference and Berkshire County League, to their credit, created the Western Mass tournaments that, for hockey and basketball, conclude this weekend.
These tournaments have led to some great moments and bragging rights for players and fans.
But these tournaments, too, have a flaw: Namely, they are not related to the “big show,” the state tournament that the top teams are trying to reach and, ultimately, to win.
I have had coaches tell me, on and off the record, that the Western Mass championship game – which does not even count toward seeding for the state tournament because it comes after the cutoff date for state tournament consideration – is meaningless. That creates a scenario where some teams and players are “all in” for the Western Mass final while others already are looking ahead to the state tournament that starts the following week.
And as much fun as many of the current Western Mass tournament games have been, they pale in comparison to the excitement of the old sectional finals at Curry Hicks Cage for basketball or Sortino Field for softball.
So what can be done?
After watching the statewide tournament for several years and remembering what things were like in the “before times,” I have two potential fixes that I wish the MIAA’s Tournament Management Committee, creator of the statewide tournament, would at least consider. Neither is a perfect solution, but each would address at least some of the above concerns with the current format.
The first is, to my way of thinking, more ambitious and more comprehensive. The second addresses one concern with the existing format while keeping it largely intact.

Scenario 1

Bring back sectionals.
This does not mean the old North-South-Central-West format with four sectional champions going to the state semi-finals. I never understood why the state had to be stuck on just four sections in 2020, and I still don’t.
In fact, the MIAA already has a structure that allows for smaller divisions: the nine districts into which it divides the commonwealth’s schools.
Another name for the Western Mass tournaments that end this weekend is the District 1 tournament. The state athletic association’s District 1 includes the PVIAC and Berkshire County League.
Rather than having four sectional tournaments, the state could have nine, which would allow schools to compete through the early rounds of the “state tournament” by making shorter trips to play against regional rivals – just like they did for decades before 2020.
Then, the nine sectional tournament winners plus seven “at-large” teams based on the existing MIAA power rankings could be seeded into a 16-team tournament field.
If, as is reasonable to argue, the 17 teams in the 2018 South D1 girls basketball sectional were disadvantaged, maybe all seven of those at-large bids come from the region that used to be known as the South, if their power rankings are strong enough.
This nine-sectional format could be adjusted, of course. Maybe 72 teams (up to eight in each district) is too many, so perhaps the nine districts (now sections) would have six-team tournaments with the top two seeds getting byes into the sectional semi-finals. But those are details that the TMC and the individual sport committees can figure out.
And there is nothing magic about the number nine. The state could be carved into eight districts/sections, or 10 or 12. The key is that teams would have two paths: winning their section in a tournament or being one of the top-ranked teams not to win a section, i.e. an at-large team.
This scenario would necessitate an end to the .500 record rule for qualification, which is not ideal. But I think it is worth the tradeoff to regain the excitement of meaningful sectional tournament play. As a side benefit, it would make the state’s other “bracket” sports more like football. And it is hard to come up with a team in the last three years that was seeded 33rd or lower (i.e., teams that reached the tournament based solely on their .500 record) and advanced as far as a state semi-final.
There are instances where the nine-team districts would create the same disparity referenced above with the 2018 D1 girls brackets. For example, this winter, Western Massachusetts has just two boys basketball teams classified in Division 1 and just one girls basketball team in the large-school division. In those rare outlier scenarios, teams could be moved into an adjoining district for the purposes of the sectional.

Scenario 2

Bring some sanity to the travel schedule.
This means accepting the reality that teams in the bottom eighth of a 32-team state tournament field have more in common with one another than they do with teams seeded in the top eighth.
One solution to the insane road trips for play-in and Round of 32 playoff games is to allow teams in the bottom of the tournament draw to be moved a couple of places up or down the ladder.
That would involve creating sport-specific tournament committees and having faith in them to equitably “reseed” the field after the raw numbers spit out rankings for the 32 to 40 teams that typically qualify in any one season.
What I would propose is that any team ranked 29th or lower could be moved a maximum of three spots if, and only if, such movement would reduce travel times for both teams involved and would reduce the time spent on a bus for at least one of the teams by an hour or more.
In other words, teams would not be moved willy-nilly for no real benefit. But when there is an opportunity to make the 31st seed the 34th seed and prevent a three-hour bus ride, just do it.
If you’re the top seed in a tournament, you can’t tell me that you’re at a competitive disadvantage by having to play your first round game against the No. 29 team in the field instead of the No. 32 team in the field.
Of course, the details are up for debate (Should it only be teams ranked 30th and lower? Should they only be allowed to move two spaces instead of three?), but the principle of the plan remains the same: Make minor tweaks to the bracket in order to avoid the worst negative externalities of the current format.
And, yes, I realize that nothing in Scenario 2 would have prevented 2021’s 17th-ranked Monument Mountain volleyball team from traveling to face No. 16 Nantucket in the Round of 32, but no solution is going to solve all problems. This one only is meant to address the most egregious instances: where two teams that don’t have a good chance of getting out of the Round of 32 have to make a long bus ride – or even two – just to play in the Round of 32.
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