Southern Section’s New Playoff Plan Is a Success--Sort Of
With Southern Section teams winning three state basketball championships last 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 this season’s playoff structure, which grouped schools by enrollment to conform with the system used in the state tournament. Crowley said 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 each in the boys’ and girls’ divisions--qualified for the state tournament. This season, 18 boys’ teams and 19 girls’ teams advanced to the Southern California regionals.
Only two Southern Section teams--the Morningside and Palos Verdes girls--reached a championship game last season. But this year, eight of the 10 state finals involved 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 six of a possible 27 boys’ titles and six of 27 girls’ titles.
Glendora, Trabuco Hills, Santa Clara and Bel-Air Prep represented the Southern Section in the boys’ state finals last week. The girls’ finalists were Morningside, Katella, Brea-Olinda and Mission College Prep.
Santa Clara, Morningside and Brea-Olinda were victorious.
“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 it’s evident that problems abound.
An informal poll of coaches from the South Bay and other areas whose teams advanced to the playoffs revealed that some object to the basic playoff structure and almost all see significant drawbacks to the system.
Among the complaints:
The .500 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 non-league competition in order to pad their records.
“It scared us because we felt it put a lot of pressure on some of our preseason games,” Torrance Coach Carl Strong said. “You want to have as good a record as possible going into league. I think it puts a little bit more strain on the coach. It restricts your ability to experiment and use the preseason as it should be used.”
Redondo Coach Steve Shaw said the .500 rule will make coaches seek easier non-league schedules.
“You have to look at it from that standpoint,” he said, “and that doesn’t make sense.”
“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 playoff divisions based on their enrollment. In the eight-team Bay League, for example, the four playoff teams advanced to three different divisions. Bay champion Rolling Hills competed in the 3-A playoffs, runner-up Inglewood and third-place Torrance played in the 4-AA Division and fourth-place Beverly Hills was in 5-A.
“There has to be some way to organize the leagues so you have less of a discrepancy in school enrollment,” Strong said. “In athletics and war, population counts. You should get school enrollments closer (in one league) so you’re competing against similar-sized schools.”
Too many byes.
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.”
In the Bay League, runner-up Inglewood had a first-round bye in the 4-AA playoffs because there were not enough qualified teams to fill a 32-team bracket. But Rolling Hills, the Bay champion, had to play a first-round game in the 3-A Division because of the high number of playoff qualifiers.
“If there is a negative to (the playoff format), it would be the difference in the number of teams in different divisions,” Redondo’s Shaw said. “The 3-A was so loaded this year, but some of the other divisions had so few qualified teams they had to have byes. That’s no good. I think even the seeded teams would rather be playing somebody in the first round.”
General dilution of the tournament.
Previously, the Southern Section crowned six boys’ and six 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.
“Anytime you increase the supply of anything, you decrease its value,” St. Bernard Coach Jim McClune said. “I think it was kind of sloppy having byes all over the place. Maybe there are not enough good teams to fill nine (playoff) divisions.”
West Torrance, for example, finished fourth in the Ocean League at 6-8 but qualified based on its 12-12 overall record.
Crowley concedes 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 rather than enrollment--cannot be approved until January. In the meantime, Crowley will suggest changes at Tuesday’s meeting of the section coaches’ advisory committee.
Crowley agrees with coaches who knock the .500 rule and will recommend its suspension for next season. The top three teams in each league will automatically 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.
“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.”
Serra (10-12) was one of the teams rejected, although the Cavaliers were ranked in the 2-A Division top 10 virtually the entire season. They finished fourth in the competitive Camino Real League behind two 5-AA Division schools, St. Bernard and St. Monica, and 2-A St. Anthony, which reached the semifinals. Verbum Dei, another competitive Camino Real team, was rejected for the same reason.
“One of the nice things about the new format was that Verbum Dei and Serra would have the opportunity to go to the playoffs and have a chance to play against schools their own size,” St. Bernard’s McClune said. “But their preseason schedules were so tough that their records precluded them from participating in the playoffs. Either one of them would have had a shot at winning the 2-A Division.”
Changing the .500 rule 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 for many coaches.
Crespi’s Muff called the state tournament anticlimactic, and Simi Valley Coach Dean 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.”
Rob Fernas contributed to this article.