Commentary: Evaluating boys hoop tourney format

The Observer’s sports writer Michael Letendre.

By MICHAEL LETENDRE

STAFF WRITER

Two years ago, the CIAC decided to make a major modification to its scholastic boys postseason tournament.

Using the “fill-the-bracket” concept, filling all 32 slots, the 2017 Class M set-up had four opponents with 7-13 records – one under the old tournament qualification standards of a 40-percent winning percentage.

Byes were eliminated and the number one seed was forced into action against sub-.400 squads.

It produced a bit of controversy as No. 32 Ansonia of the Naugatuck Valley League upset top seeded Lewis Mills 78-73 in overtime as the Class M bracket was put into immediate chaos.

Also, No. 30 Bulkeley nearly picked off third-rated Waterford, which really would have been something.

The “fill-the-bracket” concept seemed to be an interesting phenomenon yet allowed non-contenders a chance to advance despite a mediocre regular season of play (Bulkeley being in the  Class M bracket is another item I’m going to immediately skip over…).

So what about those minimal qualification standards? Those got thrown out the window when simply trying to fill up the slots of a bracket.

But the CIAC decided to bring back those minimum standards and simply made another division, putting together a fifth bracket and – in the process – allowing another state champion to emerge.

Season one of the changes in 2018 worked pretty well for the boys and the repeat in 2019 has also produced positive results.

In Division I, the format was even better the second time around as all the squads playing in that bracket won eight games or more.

True, three teams with sub-.400 records slipped into tournament play in 2018 but in Division I, state tournament qualification is automatic – regardless of record – and usually the best squads in all the state are in that mix.

Yes, fewer teams qualify in each division – causing those first round byes – which is a good reward for winning as many games as possible.

And teams flipping from higher divisions to lower ones, and vise-versa, which may still need some tweaking, seem to have worked out very well.

There’s always the topic of where to filter in the private and parochial schools but the mix has produced mainly positive results to date.

And those positives have led the CIAC to make changes for next season among the girls postseason.

Starting in 2019-20, the girls state tournament fray will move to the five division format and another championship team – five in all – will be crowned.

With the inclusion of a fifth division for the 2019-20 scholastic season, the intriguing “fill-the- bracket” concept has apparently concluded.

It was an interesting gambit in which 32 total teams qualified for state tournament play over the four classes.

The 40-percent winning percentage was thrown out the window for one final time this year and each bracket was simply filled from top to bottom with the top 32 teams.

That helped out Bristol Eastern in 2017-18 when the squad – playing a brutal schedule – qualified for the postseason with a 7-13 ledger.

True, the Lancers dropped a tough 40-point decision as the final seed of the Class LL bracket, but the experience was invaluable and the team benefited greatly due to the postseason experience.

The five-division format will eliminate those teams with less than a 40-percent ledger from entering postseason play over those last four divisions.

So, in its final season of the “fill-the-bracket” methodology, how did the squads that won fewer than eight games fare in the 2019 tournament fray?

Class LL once again had teams that were sub-.400 – four in fact – but the results were mainly predictable.

No. 29 Cheshire (7-13) fell to No. 4 Hamden 60-37; No. 30 New Canaan dropped a tough 62-37 decision at No. 3 Trumbull; second-ranked New London zonked No. 31 Darien 65-24; and the final seed, Greenwich (6-14), was blitzed by No. 1 Norwalk 70-28.

Sub-.400 teams took up five spots in the Class L bracket, which included Stratford (No. 28, 7-13), Bassick (No. 29, 7-13), North Haven (No. 30, 7-13), Killingly (No. 31, 6-14), and Platt (No. 32, 5-14), who didn’t even play a full 20-game schedule and earned a spot with just five victories in 2018-19.

Stratford fell by 43 points; Bassick lost via a 32-point thrashing; Windsor destroyed Killingly by 55; and Platt was eliminated by North Dame-Fairfield, 85-40.

But then there was No. 30 North Haven, who ended up being a bracket buster.

The upstart squad was able to upset third ranked Bullard Havens of New Haven, 45-34.

That’s the exact reason that made the “fill-the-bracket” method fun.

And even though North Haven was bounced out of the tournament in the next round, that’s why you play because you simply never know.

Match-ups are a strange thing and if your team can get the right one, upsets shouldn’t be all that surprising.

That’s the only reason while I’ll miss the current four division set-up.

This year’s Class M bracket was loaded with all teams that won at least eight games. In fact, there was a play-in game between Amistad and Woodland as 33 total teams were in the mix.

And Class S had two squads that went 7-13.

Those results weren’t pretty as No. 2 Housatonic held No. 31 Ellis Tech to just 15 total points; while top-seeded Canton defeated No. 32 Tourtellotte by a 60-37 final.

No. 28 Northwest Catholic (8-12) did make it to the semifinals of the Class S bracket before bowing out – proving that the 8-12 record is the correct standard for the new five division format.

The only problem for the CIAC is the realization that championship weekend – played from the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville – will somehow have to squeeze 10 games in which seems to be farfetched at best.

With 10 champions to be crowned, something has to give.

Isn’t time to move some of those games back to the Central Connecticut area?

Mohegan Sun has been a very good host over the years, but so was Central Connecticut State University. Tradition was lost when those high schools championships were pulled from the university.

Can’t the CIAC rotate the championship schedule and allow (at least) two games to be played from New Britain again?

Detrick Gymnasium has been the site of many championship battles in the past as the 1990 Bristol Central boys team and the 2001 St. Paul girls title squads won from that venue over the years.

It would be fantastic to start that up again.

Ten games are simply too many to handle from one arena and some of those showdowns might have to commence early on Friday because the CIAC doesn’t want a late Sunday championship contest (the New Britain championship did, however, start at 6 p.m. on Sunday evening).

That’s another conversation for another day but it looks like the CIAC has made the right move by adding a fifth division to the girls basketball state tournament format to match the boys.

To comment on this story or to contact staff writer Michael Letendre, email him at MLetendre@BristolObserver.com.