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COLLINS: Changes needed in PIAA basketball playoffs

(Scranton) Times-Tribune (TNS)
  • The PIAA basketball playoffs had six classifications for the first time this season.
  • The state basketball playoffs produced a large number of blowouts, including in the finals.
  • Nine of the 12 PIAA basketball champions were private schools.

A gentleman approached me during halftime of a state playoff basketball game last week and asked me a very fair question.

“So,” he laughed, “do you still like the six classification system?”

Archbishop Wood celebrates its win in the PIAA Class 5-A state championship finals against Meadville in Hershey last month. Private or charter schools earned 16 of the 24 berths in the basketball state finals this past season.

Well, the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association’s first-year six classification structure had a bit of a tenuous month, for sure. The blizzard that buried the region in more than two feet of snow exposed a major issue — the rigid scheduling structure for championship basketball games — right out of the chute. That storm happens a few days later, and there might have been chaos reigning over the PIAA basketball championship festival at the Giant Center in Hershey the last three days. Luckily, the PIAA didn’t have to worry so much about that, and it even got the gift of realizing the overwhelming need for a contingency plan in the future.

What it really should be most concerned about, though, is that while the six-classifications may have crowned more hoops champions, it simply didn’t produce an abundance of championship-caliber basketball.

Lopsided scores: The PIAA finals in Hershey lasted a day-and-a-half before it finally produced what one might consider a close game, a five-point win for District 7 champion Sewickley Academy over District 12 runner-up Constitution for the boys Class 3A title.

The first five finals leading up to that one were decided by 12, 14, 17, 19 and a whopping 31 points. The issue there isn’t so much that the championship games were lopsided, because that can happen any year. The issue is that it continued a trend that started from the beginning of this tournament and extended through the end, encompassing pretty much every classification.

Granted, Saturday’s games saved face a little with championships decided by 4, 6, 8 and 28 points.

“There have been a lot of blowouts,” that man told me during our brief halftime conversation. A quick glance at some scores proved him correct, but a deeper study of each of the 12 tournaments showed he might have even been underselling it.

The average first-round game in the boys tournaments was decided by, get this, 15 points. Which might not have been too big a deal, had the average second-round game in those tournaments not been decided by 17.3 points.

In the 1A, 2A, 3A and 4A classifications, the quarterfinals were largely lopsided affairs, as well.

The girls tournaments were little better. The first-round games averaged a 19.1 ppg blowout. The second round? Try 16.3. And in the first five classifications, the quarterfinal rounds were dictated by a margin that ranged between 13.8 and 16.8.

With the exception of the 6A boys and girls' tournaments, which statistically were much more competitive, and the 5A boys' bracket — helped immensely by Abington Heights’ gritty, back-to-back double-overtime win to reach the semis — you were more likely to walk into a gym and see a lopsided game than you were even a somewhat close one.

The boys' tournament, before the finals were played, saw just 67 games decided by fewer than 10 points. Meanwhile, 47 were decided by more than 20. In the four smaller classifications, 37 games were decided by less than 10 and 39 by more than 20.

In the entire girls' tournament leading up to the finals, including the significantly more competitive 6A classification, 54 games were decided by more than 20 while 52 were decided by less than 10.

All of it begs the question: Is this really a championship experience for the kids playing, or is it just a glorified district tournament on a statewide scale?

Blame the system?: Last fall, I wrote a column on the six classification system’s affect on football, determining that football is well-suited to the change. Similarly sized schools faced each other. There were more opportunities, better ones, for really good programs that simply couldn’t get around a dynasty in their area in the past to try their hand at championship-level football. When the PIAA championships wrapped up in December, it still seemed like a pretty good deal, one year in.

It hasn’t translated, at least initially, to basketball.

Guess the fair question is, are the blowouts in the basketball tournaments a product of the system? It’s too early to say, but there should be concern it isn’t helping.

What’s indisputable is the six classifications only strengthened the primary reason there have been so many blowouts: The very good private school teams, on the whole, are better than the ones produced by public schools. Add a few more of them, and a few schools that had never been on this stage before, and that’s a recipe for a laugher. In fact, 15 games on the boys' side and 20 on the girls were decided by 35 points or more.

Sixteen of the 24 teams that competed for championships this weekend are either college prep schools, a religious academy or a charter school. Nine of the 12 champions were private schools. We certainly don’t have to discuss how they have some advantages, especially in sports like basketball, that typical public schools do not.

PIAA should consider public, private divisions: The PIAA really should consider a private school and public school division, as states like New Jersey do. That provides as many, if not more, chances for kids to compete in championship tournaments without exposing them to situations in which they simply can’t compete. That would make these tournaments more competitive, more fun to participate in for the players and to watch for the fans, increasing the overall experience. And hey, if they want to pit the private school and public school champions against each other at the end, there would be some intrigue in that.

What there’s no intrigue in is watching the same issues with the state tournaments perpetuating themselves, over and over again, with no end in sight for the types of schools that simply have the odds stacked against them.

For that, it’s probably not fair to blame the change the PIAA made. The issue is the one it hasn’t made and needs to seriously consider.