Things That I'm Decidedly Not Excited About This Season
Not everything that goes on in life is great. Similarly, not everything that goes on in the world of basketball is something that I can get excited about. Usually there are a couple of things that go on during the offseason that serve primarily to damper my enthusiasm for the upcoming season. This past offseason, I read about two such things. The first is a minor annoyance. The second is, in my mind, a more fundamentally upsetting change. And today I bring you my angry rants about those things. I’m generally a pretty positive fellow, so you’ll undoubtedly note that the list of things that I’m excited about this year is considerably longer than the two things that bring me down. But it must be noted that the following two items do upset and disappoint me (particularly the second one):
1) I was disappointed a few months ago when I read that this upcoming December's installment of the annual Wisconsin Basketball Yearbook Shootout is moving to Concordia University after spending its first five years at the Al McGuire Center. The Wisconsin Basketball Yearbook website notes that the move was made due to NCAA rule changes. Though I am unfamiliar with the rule changes that necessitated the move, I can only assume that they involved some sort of prohibition of or set of limitations imposed on tournaments like this one being held on division one college campuses. Indeed, one can see how such a tournament being held in the Marquette University practice facility could be a recruiting advantage. That said, as a guy who's a fan of Marquette's big in-state rival, I never had a problem with the tournament being held at the McGuire Center. It is, quite simply, a fabulous venue for such an event, and I could care less if a kid or two gets swayed toward Marquette every couple of years by getting to experience the Golden Eagles’ gorgeous practice facility. Regardless of what the reason is for the change (and indeed, I recognize that my assumptions as to why the rules changes occurred may be completely wrong), the fact remains that the WBY Shootout is good for basketball and should be located in the best venue possible. And that venue is located in downtown Milwaukee, not out in Mequon.
2) We’re entering the first year of a new format for the Wisconsin high school basketball tournament and I couldn’t be less excited about it. The two key “innovations” of the plan are the addition of a fifth division and a change in the number of Division 1 teams that make it to the state tournament from eight to four. Before this new format was adopted a few months ago, Nicholas Kartos of Wissports.net very clearly broke down some of its pros and cons. Check out his blog if you want a good summary of how things will be different. If you’d prefer a long, bitter rant about the change, I present you with my list of the three things that most bother me about the change.
a) Five state champions is too many. As the blog post linked above notes, every one of Wisconsin’s neighboring states has four state champions, and each of those states contains more high schools than Wisconsin. While adding a fifth division doesn’t totally strip the meaningfulness of the designation “state champion,” it’s tough to argue that it doesn’t at least devalue it. Truth be told, I’d rather go back to the old three division format that the WIAA did away with just over twenty years ago. There was something logical about having champions of the large schools, medium sized schools and small schools.
b) There seems to be no compelling reason for the change. I honestly can’t think of any problem that shifting to five divisions solves. Nor have I seen any clear explanation of what this move fixes or any compelling argument about how it makes the tournament better. If there truly was any significant problem (and it’s arguable that there was) with the four-division format of the WIAA state tournament, it was that a small number of private schools have tended to snatch up a disproportionate number of Division 3 state tournament berths and titles. Addressing this issue would have at least been a defensible reason to consider some type of restructuring. Indeed, initial drafts of the five division format, while flawed in their method of approaching this issue, at least attempted to solve the problem by creating a mechanism for shifting powerful private schools upward in the division structure. The format that was actually adopted is totally silent on this issue. And I have yet to see an explanation of any other issue that the new format could reasonably solve, or a reasonable argument for why this makes the tournament better.
As an aside about how this change in format does not address the public-private issue in division three, it’s notable that of the four most successful teams from the old Division 3 (Racine St. Catherine’s, Whitefish Bay Dominican, LaCrosse Aquinas and Manitowoc Roncalli) are all in the new Division 3. In the last decade, those five schools have combined for 15 state tournament appearances, seven Division 3 championships, and two Division 2 championships (Aquinas and St. Catherine’s had years earlier in the decade where their enrollment placed them in Division 2). I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the Division 3 private school dominance will continue with this new format. A few schools will get lucky and dodge these powers by moving down to Division 4, but for everyone else sticking around or moving into the new Division 3, the story will remain the same.
c) Limiting Division 1 to four teams at the state tournament makes the tournament less exciting. I recognize that I have some inherent bias on this issue, having gone to a somewhat large high school and having lived only in Milwaukee and Madison, home to most of the state’s large schools. I also recognize that a handful of the state’s great Division 1 teams will now drop to Division 2 (my own alma mater included). And finally, I’m fully aware that the mission of the WIAA is not to ensure the best tournament match-ups or create the most exciting tournament possible. But can we all look past that for a moment and just all admit that watching teams from the biggest schools is generally more fun. I liked having eight Division 1 teams at state for two reasons. First, they’re usually the most talented teams there. It’s not tough to figure out that a Division 1 team made up of the 14 best players from a school of 1,800 students is going to almost always be much better than a Division 5 team made up of every able-bodied male who’s enrolled in school and doesn’t entirely hate basketball. The more talented the teams, the more fun the games are to watch. Second, a format where a team has to win three games in three days to win the championship lends itself to allowing you to seeing a few games so that you can get to know the teams. By the time that the state finals came around each year, I found myself caring a lot more about the two Division 1 teams because I’d seen them play for the past two days, rather than one quick game.
I find it significant that the new format ultimately makes no change in the number of teams that make it to state to play for a championship. It merely shifts the state tournament berths from large schools to generally less talented small schools. Oh, and the number of games to be played at the Kohl Center drops from 16 to 15. In return, we get to hand out one more gold ball. That doesn’t feel like a fair trade off to me.
So those are the items that are wearing on me a bit. I'll be back in the next day or two with some more in-depth thoughts on the new WIAA tournament and a few observations about the recently released tournament brackets. And not to worry--not everything will be negative. There are positives about even the worst of situations.