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CCS Basketball Playoffs: Bloated and Broken

Qualifying for postseason far from a reward with system of watered-down divisions; teams with awful records included because of poor eligibility standards.

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.

Victoria Sullivan February 24, 2011 at 05:26 AM
Dear Scott, I could not agree with you more. The pre-season records possibly reflect a weak schedule designed to insure a team’s participation in post-season play. A team that plays a tough schedule pre-season, and then plays in a power league can finish their season with a less than .500 record and be excluded from CCS.
Linda Lucido February 25, 2011 at 10:26 PM
I agree! Not to mention, the pre-season games where stronger teams just beat the crap out of weaker ones in order to pad their stats are an embarrassment. Should be handled more like football is.
Jim Hart February 27, 2011 at 07:38 PM
It sounds like you are bringing up two issues here. 1. Should there be a Public School Section Championship and a Private School Section Championship. 2. The criteria for qualifying for the post season is too broad. There are 16 team left in Divisions 1 through 4 in the girl's tournament and 9 of those schools are public. Division 5 is primarily a small private school division anyway, so it's difficult to add them into the argument. In Division 1 all 4 of the remaining schools are public, so a public school will obviously win that division. Division 4 has 2 public schools, who are in the semi-finals and have a good chance of winning that division. There has to be a selection criteria for the tournament and right now it's .500 in league or .500 in the pre-season. Some of the power leagues like the West Catholic League are so challenging that the CCS would be removing some of the best teams by not allowing those teams to enter the post season tournament because they had a sub .500 league record. I have sat in on the last 5 seeding meetings for girl's basketball and I have found them fair. I believe the CCS tries very hard to make the post season basketball tournaments equitable and challenging for the participants.
Tom De Meo February 28, 2011 at 07:22 AM
I Agree with Scott, Also the the postseason is dragging on, some players who play spring sports like baseball have to start their season in March wile waiting for these other teams to play. Missing three to four weeks of their other sport.
Harry E. Smith March 07, 2011 at 05:00 AM
Yes Scott, most teams don't have much of a chance to win the CCS, but do we want to miss a possible "Hoosiers" moment because you want some committee (that probably hasn't seen every team) to handicap the playoffs before they even begin by placing only the popular power programs? The field is already limited to 16 teams in each bracket, with the higher seeds getting byes, so what's the harm? There are some good teams stuck in very strong power leagues that just aren't going to put up big win seasons, but are very competitive against like-sized schools. Look at the runs Terra Nova's and South City's boys put up in the PAL Tournament where those teams had 0 and 2 wins in league play! And speaking of a level playing field, why do the private schools that 'recruit' players from anywhere and usually have fat athletic budgets funded by their tuition fees, get to 'hide' behind lower enrollment size as Division 2, 3, or 4? At my public high school with its budget cutbacks, I can only get the kids that live in my district. How is this fair? Why do open enrollment Valley Christian, St. Ignatius, Sacred Heart Cathedral, and Riordan get to play in D-3, and Menlo, Sacred Heart Prep, and Notre Dame Belmont play down in D-4 against the limited local pool of talent at my smaller local school? Maybe we would have a more exciting CCS playoff if all the pick-and-choose powerhouses had to play each other in D-1, and the constrained public schools had a more even footing to compete!

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