At last week’s girl’s basketball state tournament Murray Coach Wyatt Foust suggested that it was time for a change. And the change he had in mind was to start seeding the state tournament. Since its inception the state tournament (both boys and girls) has been a blind draw.
Many agree with Coach Foust.
But not me.
Admittedly blind draws are random (of course) and can cause some unbalanced brackets and difficult first round match ups. Blind draws are not perfect. But they aren’t meant to be. And neither is our state basketball tournament. Nor do I want it to be. In fact, its imperfection is its best quality.
And in its imperfection, it remains undefeated in producing its desired result, crowning a worthy champion.
To start, we need to understand what our state tournament is and what it is not. It is a geographic tournament designed to produce participation from every corner of our state. It is not a tournament in which the best sixteen teams in the state are invited. It is a tournament in which sixteen very good teams participate based on being the best in its geographic location. Therefore it really is a “state” tournament.
In its beginning we have 64 districts each based to some degree on geography. To win the district is to say that you are the best in that small space. But the award is no small one, especially in rural Kentucky.
Many who want seeding also want district tournaments done away with. This would be a shame. In its history Metcalfe Co. has won 5 girls district championships in 45 years. I had the good fortune to coach one of them.
The gym was packed that night. The crowd was raucous. The game was an instant classic. I have never been a part of anything as good as that game and I have been involved with organized sports in some way since I was 5 years old.
The last five possessions each ended with a made three pointer and each swung the lead from one side to the other. Shawna Edwards bounced in the last one at the buzzer and the Lady Hornets won it by a point. The students rushed the floor. I jumped so high that I actually tore my calf muscle. We rode home to a police escort. Afterwards, the students and parents and community stayed at the high school to celebrate long after the bus arrived. It was the coolest moment I have ever experienced as a coach.
District titles mean that much to folks in a wide part of the state. They need not disappear.
That team made it to the semi finals of the Region and then it was over. But I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
The regional tournament is semi seeded with winners drawing runner-ups. Some argue the inclusion of the runner-ups but I don’t mind it. It makes the Districts useful and fun but not all decisive. And (much like a conference tournament) it gives a good team a second chance. And remember, the idea of the state tournament as a whole is to find the best team.
Again, our regions are based on geography. Region 1 is far west and touches Illinois and Missouri. The 16th is far East and borders West Virginia and Ohio. To win a Region is to cement legendary status in most of the state. In Kentucky, it is really a lifetime achievement award. If you win it, then you are unquestionably good. Good enough to earn a spot at the state.
Which is the point of the blind draw. Why would we value one Regional winner over another? To do so would be to argue that one geographic location is inferior or superior to another. Is that what we want? And why? To produce a better tournament or a better result?
This year over 40,000 folks attended the girls state tournament. The championship game drew 5,600+. Do we believe that seeding the tournament will increase those numbers? And if so, where is the research to prove it?
By comparison, this year’s SEC women’s tournament had 32,00+ in attendance over a 13 game event. Roughly the same per game and per session as our state tournament. I fail to see where folks are not already fairly interested and excited about our Sweet Sixteen.
But maybe the result is the problem. Perhaps the blind draw has resulted in an inferior squad being named state champ. Let’s see. This year’s winner is Ryle, a team universally viewed as either the best team in the state or one of them pretty much all year long.
Maybe last year or years past would show us a problem.
Except it doesn’t. Mercer Co. in 2017 &2018, Butler HS in 2016, Covington Holy Cross in 2015 and so on. As far back as the Riherd’s scoreboard goes and not one fluke that I can find.
So if the format works in getting the intended result, and it draws fans at a high level, then why in the world would we change its format?
Proponents may argue that it is unfair to pit the #1 ranked team against the #5 ranked team in the first round while perhaps the #13 ranked team gets to play the #16 ranked team. Maybe so.
But does this impact the tournament? Not really. Maybe it keeps a team from advancing that would have otherwise, but are we really playing for 8th place now? Surely for the love of Gaylord Focker we are not.
267 or so teams begin district play with a chance. That is the beauty of it. No classes, no public/private split. Those districts are mostly seeded and that is fine. But once the Regional tournament begins, we are left with mostly solid teams. And by the time we get to the Sweet Sixteen we have really good teams. And when the tournament is over we are left with one great team whom we shall forever know as State Champ.
Everybody else goes home with a loss. Everybody. Some Districts knock out some really good teams which may be unfair. The 15th District this year had three Regional contenders. One was left home thanks to a wild 3 pointer in OT. They likely were better than some of the teams in the 4th Regional tournament and certainly better than some teams in other regions. So what. Life is unfair sometimes.
And this to me brings us to the greater point about the whole thing.
Everybody likes to win and everybody hates to lose. But is that what this whole thing is all about?
I have coached for 22 years, 20 as a head coach. I have had some really good teams including one Regional champion. I have had some really poor teams also including two that won six games all year long.
I believe in my heart that I served all of them equally well. I do not believe that the experience was marred or enhanced by the outcome whatever it was. My poor teams practiced hard and did the best they could and so did my really good teams.
The lessons we learned and the relationships we built were not determined by our successes or our failures but rather by our effort and willingness to try. Now certainly our District champs and Regional champs will remember those accomplishments and well they should. But, my role as coach was not diminished by or exalted by the wins or the losses.
One of my favorite groups of kids were the seniors (really the whole team) my first year at Metcalfe. We weren’t very good. But, those kids bought every single thing my coaches and I were selling. They tried so hard. And in our last game we took a very good Russell Co. team to the wire in the first round of the District. I couldn’t have been more proud.
This is what high school sport should be about. Not state titles or seeded state tournaments because in the end how does that impact the role we play in helping kids improve their lives and by association hopefully our communities? I can’t see any way it does.
Winning is important and striving to win is very important. But it is not what we who have chosen to coach at the high school level were put here to do. We were put here to make an impact on young people. We are not the NBA nor the NCAA nor any professional league. We don’t have to have a system that ranks everybody 1-267. In fact, it is the last thing we need.
What we do need is to take the team we have, do the best we can with them, and then hug them when it is over. And that is all.