Opinion, Sports

Commentary: A better system needed for high school tournament pairings

The Massachusetts high school tournament pairings in hockey and basketball are out, and, once again, the ridiculous things about them just jump out at you.

There’s nothing so astonishingly stupid as a zero-win football team going to the postseason playoffs while a 4-3 Classical team is left out. That happened in the fall, and it illustrates how futile it is to give everybody a trophy in a sport that just isn’t set up for that kind of a tournament.

I want to focus on one particularly potential gross mismatch to prove my point about basketball.

A 4-16 Saugus basketball team sneaked in with the 16th seed in Division 3 North, and will play at No. 1 St. Mary’s Tuesday.

Now, we’ve seen some pretty one-sided 1-16 games in the NCAAs, but I can assure you the 16s are the big fish in little ponds. They are almost always 20-win teams that play in Division 1 leagues that bear no similarity to the elevated stratosphere of the Dukes and Villanovas. They are basically cannon fodder for the big boys to loosen up and make sure their shoes are in working order (have to say that now after the Zion Williamson fiasco last week). But when the pairings come out next month, notice the records of those play-in schools and the 16 seeds. All of them are worthy.

Is a 4-16 team worthy or this environment?

This isn’t to attack Saugus. The school is in the Northeastern Conference and, year in and year out, there are few gimmies in boys basketball in that league. It is competitive, and if you’re even a shade off in talent, you could easily end up having that kind of a season.

So OK. Play your 20 games and hope for better things next year. But we have the Sullivan Rule, which allows a 4-16 team to qualify for the tournament if it went at least .500 against teams in its own division.  That means if Saugus was 4-4 against other D3 teams it played, the Sachems qualify. This is like serving watered-down beer, except that in this case the ratio would be 90-10 dihydrogen oxide.

The state’s athletic association (MIAA) has gone through some torturous revampings to create better equity among teams in the tournament — especially in football. However, the solution has been under our noses the whole time, and what made it glaringly obvious to me was the divorce between the NEC and Greater Boston League earlier this winter. The thought suddenly occurred to me: why even have leagues at all anymore? What’s the purpose? The state pays no attention to them. You can be in a league with sub-par teams, the way Classical was in football this year, and end up penalized when tournament time rolls around.

Because of 20th century league structures — some of them dating back a half-century or more — we’ve had to institute the Sullivan rule to protect teams that, because of demographics, just can’t compete. How else is a small school going to ever get into a tournament if the majority of schools it’s forced to play are bigger and, therefore, have stronger talent pools?

It would appear, then, that the league concept is the real hangup here, and that their only value to the schools within them is that it makes scheduling easier (admittedly a big consideration). It simply isn’t working anymore — not when you have to come up with things like the Sullivan Rule.

Of course, traditionalists will scoff at this, saying that it’s the dream of every player to win his or her league title. Maybe it was once, but that was before the state Super Bowls, and before the institution of the modern tournaments, with four divisions in hockey, basketball and soccer, five in baseball and about 600 in football (OK, eight).

The MIAA should consider abolishing them and go strictly with rankings, which can be adjusted up and down periodically the way they are now. Teams can play the majority of their games within their own divisions with the option of playing up or down for sentimental reasons or if they want to challenge themselves. There would be a rating system for all teams the way there is in football. And at the end of the season, teams winning at least half their games (or, in hockey, having a minimum number of points) qualify and are then seeded based on their rankings.

Everybody else goes home. No more Sullivan rule. No more 4-16 teams being forced to play 20-2 teams in the first round.

This is an idea whose time has come. Most certainly there are schools that won’t like it, and I’m fine with that. I’m just for anything that prevents the spectacle of turning something I’ve always really enjoyed into a farce.

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