W.F. West vs. East Valley

W.F. West's Annika Waring lays the ball up against East Valley during 2A state girls basketball tournament action in Yakima last March.

There’s two big stories coming out of the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA) headquarters this spring. (Or summer. Seasons don’t really register  in this Narnia-esque “School’s always out but it’s never summer” pandemic predicament.)

Will these moves drastically affect the way the game is played, independent of the changes likely coming post-COVID-19? No. Will they make a major difference in which teams win state championships in each team sports from here on out? Also no.

They will, however, change what playoff brackets look like and how we follow along with the leadup to, and the playing of, state tournaments for the foreseeable future: Everyone gets a seeding committee, and basketball gets a new format (again). The seeding committees are great, but a new basketball format is just rearranging the furniture when you can’t afford to move.

 

Seeding Committees

Earlier this month, the WIAA announced that state tournament draws for all team sports will follow football’s lead and be arranged by a seeding committee.

Football was the test subject for this change two years ago and the results have been, for the most part, well-received. 

(This is as good a time as any to disclose that I’ve been a member of the 2B football committee the last two years.) 

Each of the six classifications has a committee dedicated to following results, watching games and keeping an eye on various statistical ranking systems throughout the regular season; the weekend after the final playoff berths are determined, the committee meets at WIAA headquarters and sequesters themselves in a room until a suitable bracket is produced. 

The committee model has been excellent at preventing head-scratching first-round games and putting what are perceived to be the strongest teams as far apart from each other as possible. In two years, the committees have produced 12 brackets; while none of them have been entirely upset-free, they’ve been a marked improvement from the previous brackets. The old model had teams set up according to district finish, which hurt good teams in strong districts and helped mediocre teams in weak districts.

Adding seeding committees for volleyball, basketball, soccer, baseball and softball is a great idea, but the brackets will only be as sharp as the committee members. Here’s a few observations:

• Coaches are great, but a coach whose team is in the tournament should be ready to leave the room or pipe down when his team’s fate is up for discussion. 

• Athletic directors are a good call, especially if they’ve been in the role for a few years.

• Media members make good picks, provided they cover multiple teams in the same classification. They talk to a lot of coaches, players and fans and spend a ton of time online, which is surprisingly useful in avoiding head-scratching first-round games.

• Periphery folks (former coaches, mostly) are solid. They’ve got time to see a lot of games and crunch a lot of tape and do their homework and know the context of what they’re watching.

• Members shouldn’t cruise into the seeding meeting ready to shill for the teams from their district and make decisions based entirely on what coaches or ADs in their district say. It’s not the electoral college.

• Committees are like your financial portfolio: Diversify! If you’ve only got coaches (or ADs) on the committee, you’ll wind up with a bracket only a coach could love. If you’ve only got media folks, you’ll wind up with a bracket only a nerd could love.

• No parents. I’m somewhat certain there’s a dad out there who can make a rational, evenhanded comparison of how his son or daughter’s team compares to the rest of the state. I’m absolutely certain there’s twice as many who cannot.

Adding a seeding committee to most of these sports is a pleasant surprise. Nobody was clamoring for a baseball seeding committee, for example, but it’ll be interesting to see what sort of rankings it produces. 

That brings us to the second change.

 

Basketball Formatting

Basketball, on the other hand, was practically spelling out “SEED US PLZ” in coconuts on a remote beach and hoping a passing WIAA ocean liner took note. The boys and girls basketball committees are going to have more applicants than any other committee, and with good reason; it’s a hot-ticket sport and the basketball playoffs have seen an impressive amount of tinkering over the last decade, the latest bit of which is being floated in a survey on the WIAA website.

There’s three options on the table, and it’s not worth the time to write a detailed outline of the present format; it involves a ratings percentage index (RPI) board, and loser-out regional games for some teams, and loser-out first-round games for some other teams, and a few lame-duck district games, and answering a troll’s three riddles to cross one of the 15 bridges next to the Spokane Arena.

Nobody likes the RPI board, which really only affects seeding but gets criticized to a hilarious extent throughout the season. (It can also be gamed by scheduling a bunch of non-league games against strong lower-classification foes, but that’s thankfully a moot point now.)

Here’s the three options up for debate, along with a few pros and cons for each one.

1. Super Regional Option 1: Teams are seeded 1-16 and play two top-to-bottom (1 vs. 16, 2 vs. 15, etc.), single-elimination rounds (regionals and super regionals, apparently) on successive weekends with games at sites close to the better seed. The final four teams play semifinals on a Friday and finals on Saturday; 4A, 3A and 2A games would be in the Tacoma Dome, and 1A, 2B and 1B games would be at the Yakima SunDome or the Spokane Arena. Semifinal losers all get a third-place trophy.

Pros: Seeing the top four teams from three classifications (boys and girls!) play in one spot on one day is an attractive option, for sure, and an all-championship Saturday would also be a blast. Two rounds of loser-out games the first two weeks also sound like fun.

Cons: The vast majority of players, coaches and fans want the old 16-team double-elimination tournament back, and this is a step further away from that, which makes it a tough sell. 

 

2. Super Regional Option 2: Teams are seeded 1-16 and play a loser-out regional round at sites close to the high seed. The second (super regional) round games, also loser-out, would all be played at the Yakima SunDome in the second week of the playoffs: 1B/2B boys and girls on Thursday, 1A/2A on Friday, and 3A/4A on Saturday. The semifinals and finals would follow the same scripts as Option 1.

Pros: Again, the final two days sound awesome.

Cons: Something about the prospect of making a long drive to Yakima on a Wednesday to play a 10 a.m. loser-out second-round state basketball game on Thursday feels weird. On the surface, three days of games in one place is interesting, but most fans are only there to see one team or one classification. If you’re just an overall basketball fan booking a hotel for a few days to watch games, I think you’d want to see the same teams win and move on. It’s an appealing option, but only to a select group of die-hards who want to see every one of the state’s top-eight teams play in one spot. 

 

3. Rounds 1 & 2 in Yakima: The 1B/2B/1A classifications would play their state tournament over one two-week span, and the 2A/3A/4As would play in a different two-week span. Essentially, the first two rounds for everyone would take place in Yakima over two days, with a 1-16 seeded double-elimination format; the eight teams that win on Day 1 play each other on Day 2, and the four winners advance to the semifinals the next weekend. For the 1B/2B/1As, the semifinals and finals would be in Spokane, but would otherwise line up with Options 1 and 2; the 2A/3A/4A semifinals and finals would be in Tacoma.

Pros: It’s an intriguing solution. Teams that win a game in Yakima but still lose out would be awarded a 5th- or 7th-place trophy; every team is guaranteed two state playoff games; the players get the “playing on a big stage” feel that’s lost by playing regional games at local high schools or colleges. 

Cons: Everyone’s going to have the same question — If you’re putting all the games on a big stage, why not just put all four rounds in one place? 

 

They’re all interesting, but it’s a “we’re having waffles instead of pancakes” interesting; it took more time and it feels fancier, but it started with the same batter and for some reason you’re eating at the same diner in Yakima. 

None of the proposals are the 16-team, double-elimination, one-site tournament a lot of people have been demanding for 10 years. All three options, however, are an improvement, and ditching RPI for a seeding committee is the correct move. 

It’s not perfect, and we’re probably in for another round of tinkering in a few years (maybe we’ll get crepes!), but at least it’s a step in the right direction.

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