The Central Coast Section high school basketball playoffs are a mess. They have been for quite some time.
It’s tough to say what the bigger concern is – the woefully watered-down field or the caste system that takes championship hopes away from all but a select few programs. Either issue by itself would tarnish the CCS playoffs – but together they make what should be the most exciting part of the season a largely unwatchable flop.
And this comes from someone who thoroughly enjoys high school basketball and eagerly anticipates the arrival of the CCS playoffs in nearly every other sport.
For starters, the basketball postseason should either be a reward for the most deserving teams (as it is in most other sports) or an all-inclusive affair in which each team in the section starts with a blank slate (fair, but a logistical nightmare). What we have now is a system that toes the line between the above options – and comes out an unwieldy fiasco.
Short of returning to the former system of an egalitarian playoff – which would require a drastic schedule makeover to fit with the later California Interscholastic Federation championships – the CCS needs to markedly tighten up the qualification standards. Why? Because plenty of basketball teams that make the postseason have no business being there.
Take a look at the bracket in any one of the 10 CCS divisions – five boys, five girls – and you’ll see the problem. Too many teams, and more specifically, too many mediocre (or worse) teams.
An example? Check out the girls Division I field. Independence High qualified with a 6-16 overall record. The 76ers went 1-13 in the Blossom Valley Athletic League’s Santa Teresa Division – not even the BVAL’s top-tier division. So how did Independence get in? By virtue of its 5-3 record in non-league games. A team with that resume wouldn’t qualify for the playoffs in any other CCS sport. But in basketball? C’mon in, 76ers. There’s plenty of room for you.
This is anything but an isolated example. In the boys tournament, Scotts Valley (7-17 before losing its CCS opener Tuesday) qualified despite going 1-11 in the Santa Cruz Coast Athletic League. Wilcox, a cellar-dweller in the Santa Clara Valley Athletic League’s (lower) El Camino Division, made the field with a 9-14 overall record.
The Mountain View girls (10-14 overall, 3-9 in the SCVAL De Anza) not only qualified but received a first-round bye and will host a second-round game. Huh?
Simply put, making the playoffs is hardly a reward in basketball. Many programs become playoff eligible with a decent non-league start to their year – teams need only a .500 or better record in league or non-league games to become eligible – and then their league season becomes obsolete.
To clarify. A team’s league showing, in many cases, has zero bearing on whether that team will make the playoffs. How does that make sense?
Five rounds in the tournament? Sixteen teams in the majority of the divisions? Overkill. Wake me up once we get to the quarterfinals.
The CCS doesn’t miss the boat like this in the other main team sports. In football, baseball, softball, soccer, water polo and girls volleyball, postseason berths are much tougher to secure. Teams often battle through their final regular season game to earn an automatic CCS spot. At-large qualification is a dicey proposition – with talented and winning teams often finding themselves on the outside looking in.
But not in basketball.
Qualifying for the playoffs in all sports should be a goal a team works towards throughout its season. If a team gets in, that should be an achievement worth celebrating. But in basketball, making CCS isn’t special. In many cases, it’s assumed.
A solution? Limit the top-three enrollment divisions to a maximum of 12 teams, and whittle down Division IV and V to no more than eight teams. That would noticeably strengthen the entire CCS field and would also wipe out the lackluster first round of the present system.
For playoff qualification, the CCS should continue to allot a select number of postseason berths to each league – allowing each league champion, at a minimum, to gain automatic entry. But in a shift, the at-large slots (and the eventual playoff seeding) should be determined in accordance with the power points formula used in other team sports – a system that loosely takes into account the caliber of a team’s opponents and assesses a relative value to results.
Instantly, CCS berths would become a hot commodity. League competition would receive a huge shot of adrenaline as each game – and where teams finish in the standings in relation to their league rivals – would become much more critical.
Making the postseason would be an honor – an achievement that players could proudly look back on years down the road, as they do a league championship.
Do many (any?) teams laud their inclusion in the CCS playoffs now?
As for the problem of the de facto caste system and all-too-predictable champions, we’ll save that for next week. With scores of public schools involved in this year’s boys and girls tournaments, let’s let them live under the illusion that they have a fair shot at winning a section title for a bit longer.
After all, the private school heavyweights have kindly ceded the spotlight for the early rounds – they’re enjoying double byes into Saturday’s quarterfinals. But hey, they need their rest before parading to the podium.