ERIC SONDHEIMER / ON HIGH SCHOOLS

New format for prep basketball playoffs brings uncertainty

Southern Section's Open Division promises to produce the toughest first-round matchups ever, making coaches and players from strong programs feel uneasy.

Thomas Welsh

Thomas Welsh and the rest of the Loyola boys' basketball team will look to make the best out of the new playoff format. (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times / February 22, 2013)

There are some high school basketball coaches feeling grouchy this week because they don't like uncertainty, and that's what the new Southern Section Open Division playoffs have created.

On Friday at 1 p.m., the Southern Section will announce its selections based on criteria that are supposed to produce a bracket of between 12 and 16 teams that are the best in Southern California regardless of enrollment.

There's nothing wrong with the concept, except that in reality, this idea was put together mainly by some public-school coaches who had grown frustrated at the domination of certain private schools.

Virtually every team selected to the Open Division will have at least one transfer student on its roster and perhaps a shoe contract, too. The most ambitious programs will be grouped together and given an opportunity to beat each other up, giving other schools a chance to finally win a section title.

So, what you're going to have, in politically incorrect terms, is the "Transfer Division" or the "Shoe Division" playoffs.

The first-round games could be as good as championship games, because winning a first-round game in the Open Division guarantees teams an automatic berth in the state playoffs. A loss doesn't end a team's season. It moves to a consolation bracket, with the winning team also advancing to the state tournament. But two losses also don't necessarily mean elimination. A team could still be selected for the state tournament.

It's all new and a little confusing, which is leaving lots of people uncomfortable. Perhaps once the initial year is completed, everyone will be happy. Then again, the grumbling could get louder.

The most nervous coaches are the ones on the bubble. Since the Southern Section hasn't decided the exact number of teams to be selected, that leaves everyone guessing. And come Friday, there could be the strange sight of a team and its fans celebrating when their school did not get selected for the Open Division.

Among the schools assured of being selected for the Open Division is Los Angeles Loyola (23-1), which is dealing with the loss of standout point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright, who withdrew from school Friday after admitting he had committed academic misconduct.

It's a sad situation for everyone involved. Jackson-Cartwright is one of the most well-liked and respected seniors around.

"It was devastating," junior guard Max Hazzard said. "It was more than basketball. I love him like a brother."

Losing a key player at the end of the season is not part of the seeding criteria, so Loyola will be placed based on its record and performance this season. But the big question is can the Cubs stay competitive without Jackson-Cartwright?

"I love my team, and if anybody can do it, it's them," Coach Jamal Adams said.

Hazzard is capable to taking over as the point guard. He had 22 points Friday in a win over Encino Crespi. But there's no backup and there's no Jackson-Cartwright to end games, all of which means some schools will be rooting to be put into the same bracket as Loyola.

Then there's Bellflower St. John Bosco, which has nine losses with two games to play. In most years, there's no way a team with nine losses would be considered one of the best teams in Southern California. But the Braves have played one of the most challenging schedules and twice have given unbeaten Santa Ana Mater Dei tough games.

"We can beat Whitney Young one night and the next night lose to an ordinary team," Coach Derrick Taylor said. "We're up and down. We'll go wherever we're placed. If we're 13, 14 or 15, the teams at the top aren't going to be happy."

If there's one thing certain about the new Open Division playoffs, it's that first-round games will be the toughest ever.

eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

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