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Fix CCS Basketball—Create an Open Division

Postseason system heavily favors private school programs; adopting an elite playoff bracket would create a true section champ and enable success of public schools.

The Central Coast Section was a trailblazer in California when it instituted the Open Division for its football playoffs in 2004 – and the adoption of that elite bracket has made the postseason a resounding success on several levels.

As the CCS basketball championships tip off this afternoon at Santa Clara University, it’s time to admit that the present basketball postseason system solely based on divisions of enrollment size is deeply flawed.

A two-word solution? Open Division.

The biggest problem with the status quo is well-documented – a select few powerhouse programs dominate the CCS basketball playoffs year after year. Why? Because the heavyweights are spread throughout the divisions – meaning they beat up on lesser opponents.

An example? In the past five years, public schools have won a total of two CCS boys basketball titles – and none since 2007. That’s two out of 20 possible championships – we’ll exclude Division V from the discussion because it consists of private schools and charter schools.

How to combat that problem? Create an Open Division for the top eight teams – potential entry guidelines are outlined below – and then fill out the remaining four divisions based on school size.

The benefits? The best programs – private and public – would battle to become the Open Division winner and the clear-cut CCS champion, a distinction that doesn’t exist in the current format. And the rest of the schools would have a much more plausible shot at winning a section title.

This system became an instant hit in football, and it certainly could work for boys and girls basketball.

And even though most of them don’t know it, the coaches have the power to set this change in motion.

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For many years, the Central Coast Section had no vehicle to alter its postseason format – the California Interscholastic Federation mandated that the five divisions be defined strictly by enrollment size.

But that’s no longer the case.

Starting three years ago, the CIF modified its basketball postseason rules to allow each of its 10 sections significant leeway in terms of the divisional structure. Each section can now determine the makeup of the three divisions consisting of the largest schools – meaning those divisions have no student-size restrictions.

So the CCS can arrange its top three divisions however it sees fit. Furthermore, there is no CIF rule that mandates a certain number of teams per division – the sections set those parameters individually.

Take a look at recent history in the boys basketball playoffs in Divisions I-III. In the last decade, seven West Catholic Athletic League programs have amassed 23 of the 30 section titles. Four public schools – Palo Alto, Oak Grove, Santa Cruz and Andrew Hill – combined to win the other seven championships.

Just 18 of those 60 CCS finalists in 2001-10 came from public schools. And there were only three all-public school finals in that span.

In girls basketball, there is no WCAL school with a large enough student population to be placed in Division I. But good luck if you’re a mid-sized public school. In the last seven years, 13 of the 14 champions in Divisions II and III have come out of the WCAL.

There’s no doubt that there is a competitive imbalance – public schools simply aren’t on the same playing field as the Catholic powerhouses. Public schools surely would jump at the chance to have a more reasonable shot at a section title in a strong year.

But here’s a question you may never have heard -- Is the status quo the best system for the WCAL programs?

Let’s assess. West Catholic Athletic League coaches would have to agree that winning a league championship is a more difficult task than claiming a section title in almost every case. Isn’t winning a section championship supposed to be a higher-level goal than securing a league title? If it is, then the higher-level goal is easier to achieve for WCAL teams in all but the rarest instances in the current system.

But with the introduction of an Open Division – an elite bracket that would also include other top programs, from public or other private schools – the big dogs could fight in their own box.

Wouldn’t claiming an Open Division championship be more rewarding to the best programs than a title in a watered-down division? It certainly is on the gridiron.

In football, winning the Open championship is the No. 1 goal for most elite programs. Why? Because the Open title is the most illustrious accomplishment possible, short of a potential bid to a CIF State Bowl game.

In basketball, the top two CCS finishers in each division advance to the CIF Northern California playoffs. So the situation is quite different than in football – 10 CCS teams in boys and girls basketball advance beyond the section tournaments.

WCAL teams would correctly argue that adopting an Open Division would reduce their chances at a NorCal berth. But it would give other programs a chance to play on the big stage. And, at least on the boys side, it’s not like the WCAL has dominated NorCal play of late despite its slew of appearances. Not once in the last eight years did more than one WCAL program win a NorCal title – and three times, no WCAL team did.

So if WCAL teams favor the current system simply to streak to a CCS championship and get into the NorCal playoffs as easily as possible … they’re just taking advantage of a system that has numerous flaws. For the section as a whole, eliminating the present format’s drawbacks should be the clear priority.

Furthermore, the Open Division champion and finalist would still advance into NorCals.

Yes, the WCAL boys and girls basketball tournaments, which directly precede the CCS playoffs, would include a field very similar to that of an Open Division. The existence of those tournaments would make the WCAL teams less likely to endorse a wholesale structural change in the CCS playoffs.

But there are 16 boys basketball leagues in the section (121 teams) and another 16 girls leagues (122 teams).

What percentage of teams in the CCS truly benefit from the present system?

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So what would be the qualification criteria for the Open Division? And how could the Central Coast Section alter its postseason format to include such a bracket?

The ideal size for the Open Division would be eight teams. Why eight? Most importantly, this bracket would need to be limited to the best teams. The drop-off in most years would be pretty steep after the best eight. The 10th- or 14th-best team, for example, would have almost no chance of beating a string of premier programs, but those teams would certainly be in the thick of title races in the enrollment-based divisions.

How would the Open Division be filled with eight teams? As in football, teams could ‘opt’ into the Open field and be admitted so long as they qualify for the playoffs. The date for that opting decision should be 2-3 weeks prior to the start of the playoffs.

Ideally, the top programs – mostly from the West Catholic Athletic League -- would want to test themselves in the section’s elite division … and they would regularly opt in. Once one or two of these teams did so, there would be significant pressure on the others to follow suit, lest they embarrass themselves by stubbornly remaining in the enrollment divisions against further-weakened competition.

There would likely still be a handful of spots needed to be filled to reach the Open eight.

As was argued in this space last week, – including the introduction of a power-point system (used in a number of other team sports to determine CCS qualification and seeding) to help select the most deserving participants in a reduced field. The Open Division would be filled out with the appropriate number of other qualifying teams using the power-point system – the teams with the most points not already in the Open would be ‘bumped up’ to that bracket.

This system works relatively well in football, and there’s no reason it couldn’t in basketball – provided that a fair formula for determining power points is established. The very best public school basketball team(s) would then join the top private school programs in the Open.

There are public school teams that would more than hold their own in the Open.

In the past six years, on the boys side, Palo Alto and Santa Cruz won state titles. On Saturday, Burlingame will play in a CCS championship game for the sixth time since 2003. In 2007, Menlo-Atherton upset a Richmond team which boasted two Division I recruits on the road in a NorCal opener. Oak Grove has won two CCS titles in the last nine years and had the lead against Serra with less than three minutes left in Wednesday’s Division I semifinals.

The top-tier of girls basketball teams hasn’t been as deep in recent years. But the Open Division would still produce a true CCS girls champion, and moreover it would enable teams in the mid-sized enrollment divisions a shot at a section title.

As for how the CCS could adopt such a measure – the process begins with the coaches. The league representatives – one coach per league – would need to form a proposal at one of their committee meetings. That committee would then make a recommendation to the section’s governance boards (three advisory committees, including the athletic directors and league commissioners). Finally, those sports committees would take the proposal to the 46-member board of managers (mostly principals) for first a reading and later a vote.

Yes, of course there would be some red tape with such a major format change. But a big misperception is that the CCS administration would preclude such a development.

“I don’t think (most people) understand the membership decides how the tournament goes,” said CCS Assistant Commissioner Steve Filios, referring to the high schools that make up the section. “What you see is what has been proposed and approved by our sports committees. … We are open to all proposals as a staff and we just carry them forward.”

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Surprisingly, very few coaches surveyed had any inkling that they not only have a voice when it comes to the structure of the Central Coast Section playoffs but that they have the potential to set in motion a revamped system.

Every coach recognized certain shortcomings of the present format. Many were keen on the idea of any system which would enhance the competitive balance. And plenty of coaches and administrators were intrigued by the concept of an Open Division and four enrollment-based divisions.

Filios, the CCS official, estimated such an overhaul would take about a year.

What are we waiting for?

scott Shaffer March 04, 2011 at 03:39 PM
Great article! Having sat through three years of runner up status in the ccs div III. It is clear that a school that has the ability to get players have an advantage. I say level the playing "court".
allison niday March 04, 2011 at 05:02 PM
I have been saying this for a long time! Thanks for a great story and the beginnings of a conversation!
JC March 04, 2011 at 05:53 PM
Bad idea. unless the CIF does this for the entire state Norcal will get killed at state finals. My background is girls basketball. My daughter played for NDB on won CCS in '99. Ever since then SH Cathedral has been on a roll. This girls dont whine. They want to play against the best. Sorry but CCS D1 girls is weak because the is no private school there. With the writers logic, should the Stanford's womans team, UConn, Tennessee, Duke be put in a special division so the rest could have a chance? Parents can be such whiners. Like any thing else, including acedemics, Let the cream rise to the top.
EB March 04, 2011 at 08:25 PM
I agree with JC. Unless all CIF does this, you'll have one chance for a state champion (Open Div). Time for public schools to step up their game and quit whining. WCAL (esp. girls basketball) rules for a reason: talent and committment. (SH Cathedral will not win this weekend... Go Cats!)
CJ11 March 05, 2011 at 08:44 PM
That comment of "time for public schools to step up their game and quit whining." Is comical!... You are right that WCAL rules for a reason... Talent... not commitment... There are plenty of excellent public schools program that are committed to being the best! Take Burlingame boys for example. Year in and year out play a WCAL caliber schedule because they have been succesful and most of their talent does not leave to go play at Serra and other WCAL schools... However most public schools see the kids that live in their area end up in at privates and those kids and parents have every right to... but the since they are getting the best kids out of different areas then they should compete for an Open Division title with other schools who do the same. Yes all CIF should do this. Time for schools who belong in an Open Division to step their game up and step up to the challenge.
Josh March 05, 2011 at 10:12 PM
Let Champions be , let's just band together and improve and dethrone them . Time will tell , they WCAL have done the hard yards , so let's not get on them for that . Give Credit where it's due . Let's teach our young one's to be fighter's and not whiner's and our time will come . Every dog has it's day . May the Best Team's Win ! ! !
Harry E. Smith March 10, 2011 at 09:57 PM
Here Scott, let's make it even simpler--ALL PRIVATE SCHOOLS THAT 'RECRUIT'-ENROLL FROM ANYWHERE MUST PLAY IN D-1 or OPEN DIVISION. Why should private schools get a choice to play 'down', hiding behind their enrollment size but still enrolling players from anywhere, while my public school with just the local area talent pool is stuck to compete against them? Throw in their well funded athletic programs with trainers and multiple assistant coaches against my public school (no trainer or assistants) with budget cutbacks and the playing field is tilted even further in their favor! It sure is easy to win as many titles as the private schools do when you can cherry-pick the best players from the local areas. The time to correct this obtuse advantage is LONG past due!

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