Blake: a better playoff system, part II

mblake@newsobserver.comApril 22, 2014 

Editor’s note: this is the second of two columns in which Sports Editor J. Mike Blake shares his ideas for a better NCHSAA playoff system.

A little bit of old and a little bit of new can give coaches all they want from the N.C. High School Athletic Association playoffs.

Next season, all 64-team playoff brackets will go to the “seeded playoffs.” That means three automatic bids per league, tons of wild cards and a difficult-to-predict bracket that’s open to conference rematches in the first round. Overall record and conference finish are combined to seed both the East and the West teams 1-32.

But after soccer and basketball have completed the first full season under the seeded playoffs, coaches from both sports don’t know if it’s the best way moving forward.

The consensus is:

• They didn’t mind the added travel.

• But they did mind playing a conference opponent in the first round.

• They wanted more than three automatic bids for seven-, eight- and nine-team leagues.

• The bracket’s top and bottom halves need more balance.

• Late-round games were more competitive, another plus.

• There’s a strong resistance to feeling pressured to win nonconference games in order to improve seed – and if you think these guys dislike it, wait until baseball coaches find out what it all means.

• They liked that a home game was determined on something other than a random draw that ranked the conferences.

One soccer coach said he felt pressured to play starters that he had wanted to rest during a tied game against a weak nonconference opponent, because he knew it had big implications. He also said that he had trouble scheduling the closest nonconference team near him because that coach didn’t want to schedule two losses and miss the postseason cutoff.

Basketball coaches at successful programs wonder how hard it will be to get on someone’s schedule next year. They also feel pressure to schedule the maximum number of games to help winning percentage.

The solution here is to go back to a slotted bracket system, but to modernize it with things that the seeded playoffs brought.

A new slotted bracket system should be more spread out than it was in the past. Instead of grouping conferences together to create a hyper-local top or bottom half of a bracket, the conferences’ automatic bids should be spread evenly throughout either the East or West bracket (but obviously not both).

How to group them is where this gets good: by using the playoff results from the previous year.

Each conference would get a number based on how far its top team went the year before. Tiebreakers will be held on which conference had the “best loss.”

So next year, the Southwest Wake Athletic Conference would be the first conference seeded in boys basketball because Apex won the state title. The SWAC champ would be on the opposite end of the bracket from the Cap Eight champ, because of regional runner-up Millbrook.

The No. 1 and No. 4 seed from the SWAC would be on one bracket half, while the No. 2 and No. 3 would be on the other.

If applied to all sports (except football, whose model seems to satisfy its coaches association despite annual minor gripes), this takes care of almost all of the coaches’ concerns with the seeded playoffs: no conference rematches in the first round; the bracket halves are more balanced; winning nonconference games isn’t as high on the priority list, giving coaches the ability to schedule as often and as freely as they wish.

It also keeps some of the things that were good about seeded playoffs with more competitive late-round games and home field being decided by winning percentage or conference finish.

The NCHSAA has been very good about listening to its coaches. It’s how we got seeded playoffs in the first place. Now we can see the middle ground between the old and new formats and work with it.

To see more of an illustration on this proposal, go to nando.com/prepsnow.

Blake: 919-460-2606; Twitter: @JMBpreps

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