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Playoff Format Meets Goals Despite Flaws

<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

With Southern Section teams in position to win as many as eight state basketball championships this weekend, Dean Crowley has no qualms proclaiming his section’s radically altered playoff structure a major success.

Crowley is the section administrator in charge of basketball and one of the chief architects of the playoff structure that this season grouped schools by enrollment to conform with the system used in the state tournament. Crowley said that the change was made with one objective: to qualify as many Southern Section teams as possible for the state tournament.

Proof of the system’s success, he said, is in the numbers.

A year ago, 20 Southern Section teams--10 in each of the boys’ and girls’ divisions--qualified for the state tournament. This season that number nearly doubled with 18 boys’ teams and 19 girls’ teams advancing to the Southern California regionals.

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No Southern Section team so much as reached a championship game last season. But this year, eight of the 10 state finals will involve a Southern Section team. Since the state tournament resumed in 1981 after a 43-year absence because of logistical problems, the Southern Section has accounted for five of a possible 22 boys’ titles and four of 22 girls’ titles.

Glendora, Trabuco Hills, Santa Clara and Bel-Air Prep will represent the Southern Section in the boys’ state finals this weekend. The girls’ finalists are Morningside, Katella, Brea-Olinda and Mission College Prep.

“As long as the state is going to have a tournament, we feel we have an obligation to get as many of our teams in the tournament as possible,” Crowley said. “So we’re quite pleased with our format.”

Yet problems abound. An informal poll of Valley-area coaches whose teams advanced to the playoffs revealed that some object to the basic structure and almost all believe that there are significant drawbacks to the system.

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Among the complaints:

The .500 record rule.

The selection process mandates a .500 overall record for inclusion in the playoffs for teams that failed to finish in the top three places in their leagues. The rule encourages teams to schedule weak nonleague competition in order to pad their records.

“That forces everybody to look for the easiest competition and I don’t know if that’s what this should be all about,” Camarillo Coach John Harbour said. “The record shouldn’t be the only criterion.”

The erosion of league identity.

Under the new plan, teams from the same league may play in different brackets based on their enrollment. In the Marmonte League, for example, five of seven teams advanced to three different brackets.

“You can’t just go on enrollment only,” Simi Valley’s Dean Bradshaw said. “The league classification should be the same. If a team can’t compete at that level, then they can move to a different league.”

Too many byes.

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Some tournament divisions lacked sufficient entrants to form an even bracket, forcing numerous first-round byes. In the first round of the 5-A Division, for example, 10 of the 22 teams did not play. Hart, the Foothill League’s second-place entry, played top-seeded Pasadena in the second round after each had first-round byes.

“Your place in league doesn’t matter,” Hart’s Greg Herrick complained. “We finished second and under the old format we would have gotten another second-place team and flipped for the home-court (advantage). We won three of our last four league games, and as I look back now, those games weren’t important.”

General dilution of the tournament.

Previously, the Southern Section crowned five boys’ and five girls’ champions. This season there were nine division winners for boys and nine for girls. Also, the tournament pool increased from 177 teams last season to 215.

The additional brackets and teams, the inclusion of teams that finished fourth, fifth and even sixth in their leagues, plus the emphasis on the state rather than the Southern Section title have cheapened the tournament, some coaches said.

Newbury Park, for example, finished sixth in the Marmonte League at 4-8 but qualified based on its 13-11 overall record.

“If you’re 2-8 in your league but have a .500 overall record, you’re almost assured of going to the playoffs,” Crespi’s Paul Muff said. “That demeans what the playoffs are supposed to be.”

Crowley admits that the format has flaws. Amendments are planned but the system is in place for at least another season. A return to the old format (divisions based on strength of leagues rather than enrollment) cannot be approved until January. In the meantime, Crowley will suggest changes at the March 28 meeting of the section coaches’ advisory committee.

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Crowley agrees with coaches who knock the .500 rule and will recommend its suspension for next season. The top three teams in each league automatically will qualify for the playoffs and thereafter a team’s finish in league standings will be ignored. Teams will be selected based on overall record and strength of schedule. Crowely has yet to work out the details but said that he will pattern the formula after the system used by the National Collegiate Athletic Assn.

“We want to fill the brackets with quality teams and we don’t want schools padding their schedules with patsies to get to .500,” he said. “We had about 16 or 18 teams this year that we had to reject because of the .500 rule.”

That change will satisfy one complaint but exacerbate another. Under that change, as many as 20 to 30 teams with losing records may qualify for the tournament.

“Some say that dilutes a championship and to a degree it might,” Crowley said. “But what about the team that gets hot at the end of the season? Maybe they get some injured kids back or kids who were ineligible. It gives them a chance to compete. Getting in the playoffs is a good thing. It helps programs.”

Crowley also proposes a change that will force teams to choose a playoff division before the start of the season. This season teams seeking to move to a stronger division were given until the first week of January to decide.

“We received accusations that schools were making deals,” Crowley said. “They said coaches were saying, ‘If you stay down, you can win there and we’ll move up and win there.’ I don’t know if that happened, but we had the accusations, so we want everybody in place before the season starts.”

Those steps may alleviate some problems but they fail to address a central issue, Crowley said. Despite efforts to gear the playoffs toward the state tournament, a Southern Section title ranks above a state championship in many coaches’ minds.

Crespi’s Muff called the state tournament anticlimactic, and Bradshaw, who was an assistant coach when Simi Valley won last season’s Southern Section 4-A title, agreed.

“The state tournament has not caught on,” Bradshaw said. “The ultimate is still a Southern Section championship. When we won last year, the state tournament was just icing on the cake. The state tournament is an emotional letdown.”


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