Commentary: State Basketball Playoffs A Continued Disservice To Players, Coaches, Fans

New Canaan and St. Joseph will both be competing in Division IV of the state playoffs. (Gregory Vasil)

If the members of the boys basketball committee took the time to study possible draws in constructing the state tournament — based upon recent history I am not certain I want to take that leap assuming affirmatively — I could see them staring at something that looks very much like the mathematical equation on the board at the beginning of Good Will Hunting.

Unfortunately, Matt Damon’s Will Hunting isn’t around to help out.

The state playoffs begin tonight on the road toward crowning five — yes, five, we are after all Connecticut (and five finals in Mohegan Sun make more money than four) — champions.

It may seem unfair not to wait until after the tournament for our annual dart-throwing at the easiest of targets. It is not like everyone else isn’t already doing it, but now that the brackets are set up and in a sense there are teams to serve as faces, it is more timely.

Of the 10 teams in the latest GameTime poll, four are not competing in the Division I tournament, ostensibly the one designed for the best teams. For those who want to argue this is like football, and Greenwich doesn’t face Ansonia, fine. But the five fields are not based on the male populations at schools either.

So what does winning a title make you the best of? Basically an amorphous group of schools that were predetermined nearly a year ago, based on recent history, not 2018-19.

The lack of logic defies logic.

Staying closer to home, the top four seeds in the just completed FCIAC Tournament will be competing in three different classes. New Canaan, which is 2-2 against Division I schools and was LL in football, is in Division IV.

The Rams have been the best story of the FCIAC season. They qualified for the state playoffs for the first time in a decade. They even earned a little national attention along the way because of an insane buzzer-beating halfcourt shot in a win over Stamford.

New Canaan should be competing against top teams. It should at least be playing against teams of similar sizes. A state title would be a worthy exclamation point. But take a look at the other 27 Division IV teams and find me some commonality. At least St. Joseph hails from the same conference.

But the Rams’ placement, like all other schools, was decided last April.

And you can find over two dozen others that are not classified properly.

In Division I, the road to Mohegan Sun is really a skip to the end of the block. Twelve of the 20 teams get first-round byes, which means it is likely the champion will have only won four games.

That is a playoff? Sixteen teams would still be laughable but preferred because at least there wouldn’t be any byes.

And for those who decry needing to win just 40 percent of your games to qualify for the postseason in most sports, you don’t need to win any in Division I.

The boys basketball playoffs are one of the state’s showcase events. The weekend at Mohegan Sun is special. But because of constrictions that really are self-imposed — Trinity Catholic and St. Joseph are schools of choice, Brien McMahon and Trumbull, despite special programs, are not though treated that way — there is an unwillingness to solve this problem the way everyone would like to. With four divisions: one for schools of choice and three — L, M and S — based on the number of male students.

So modifications are made annually that give players, coaches and fans something substandard. Two years ago a committee member decided to come up with an admittedly arbitrary — I saw the emails — system based on schools’ past performances.

That is a red light right there. You are forming divisions based on expectations from the past and not the present body of work. That does not allow for teams like New Canaan, which matured this year because of senior leadership. It does not allow for teams that may get either an impact transfer or the occasional star or two that turns a program with a weak pedigree into a contender for a season or more.

The bottom line: playoff divisions should be based on actual performance, not on what is anticipated months earlier based on dated data.

So I will revisit my own modest proposal, which has been met with mostly positive reviews. At the end of league playoffs, or sometime shortly before, a field of 32 teams should be selected and seeded by a committee, using records and strength of schedule. You eliminate the chance that schools will throw games, which happened at Ridgefield many years ago and ruined a perfect Division I Tournament, because there is no formula that will reveal where teams are ranked.

If you want to create theater, you could stream a selection show.

After you choose the 32 schools, the remaining qualifiers are put into L, M and S divisions based on size.

So you have a true state champion and three more based on the commonality of size.

Is it perfect? No. Smaller schools are not going to want to play against larger ones in a Division I Tournament and would rather opt competing for the S title.

Another complaint is schools being able to scout each other during the year. First, in this era it takes 10 minutes to get a scouting report on almost any other team. And if this is the biggest issue, so be it.

Coaches I talk to regularly dislike the current format. Three complained to me in the past week they feel the committee is essentially a fiefdom and there is no forum for input.

The bottom line: the boys basketball tournament continues to be treated like an unsolvable mathematical problem, and we have a current system that no one in this state should be proud of.

When the five champions are raising their index fingers at the Mohegan Sun rafters in two weekends and chanting “We’re No. 1,” we should be able to answer the question “No. 1 of what?”

12 Comments

  1. This was a very interesting post. I would just go back to four divisions. LL, L, M, and S and do it by enrollment. Throw the Catholic schools in LL and allow any team to opt-in to LL before the season starts. No one under .500 makes the LL tournament and under .400 makes the others.

    I don’t like the idea of a committee selecting teams based on a formula and SOS. I’m not sure how you could incorporate both a computer formula and a group of largely local or regional writers/coaches opinions. It is impossible for anyone to be able to judge all the schools in the state. How many times have you seen Waterford, Womogo, East Catholic, or most other teams outside of Fairfield County this year?

    I also think that doing it the way it was done a decade ago does open the door for situations like what unfolded in Ridgefield to continue to happen.

    Locally if you look at the teams in D-1, I’d say the only thing that would’ve changed under your proposal if the selections were made after the FCIAC tournament would be moving Trinity out. Danbury, Trumbull and Ridgefield all seem correctly placed.

    • I could live with going back to four divisions. You will have years like this when Trinity is not an LL. St. Joseph was down a few years ago. Danbury, Trumbull and Ridgefield are correctly placed but Wilton, Fairfield Warde, New Canaan and Stamford should be with them.

      • I forgot to mention your point about knowing in advance is well taken. Based off this year’s results, you’d have to think that Trumbull, Danbury and Ridgefield will be back in D-1 next year but trying to predict if they’ll be as good is impossible especially with Timmond, Brown, Denali, Hernandez and St. Pierre all gone.

      • A few years ago? They were 4-16 last year. The crime is that cromwell and wamago are moved up. Not that the worst big schools are in 3.

  2. Mr.Ruden… how bout you quit focusing all the time on ridgefield wilton new Canaan and Trumbull. You go to all their games take pictures with the fans you’re a biased man who doesn’t care about the people of different towns like westport Bridgeport Fairfield and Stamford. One of these years these towns are going to be better and we are tired of you reporting on the same old teams. I have a ton of respect for these other towns you favor to cover but give other towns a chance and a lot more people will like you. As of for now though you’re a ridgefield wilton kinda guy and many people do not like you because of that.

    • I covered Stamford and Fairfield Warde as much as any other team. I covered Staples twice. I did not see Bridgeport Central this season. I pick what I believe is the biggest game each night. The schools you named were four of the top five playoff seeds. Three made the Final Four of the FCIAC Tournament. That is why they were covered more often, not because of any bias.

  3. New Canaan and Bernard are in the same division. Despite new Canaan having roughly 1000 (!) more students than St. Bernard. It’s laughable. Go back to S M L and LL. And let teams join LL at their own risk

  4. This is a great idea. Seeding after the regular season is what the NCAA does (we also need a shot clock as well). I would love to see this applied on both sides of the scale. Not a perfect system but definitely something different can be proposed

  5. 1. Mr. Ruden, I applaud you for calling out the CIAC basketball committee again this year, even though I disagree with many of the details of your proposal. To you and Mr. DiMauro and Mr. Jacobs: please continue with your annual commentary and criticism. And also, “thank you.” We need more CIAC and CTBB journalists and columnists with influential voices to join you.

    2. If I understand the Ruden proposal correctly, it will lead to very similar issues that exist now. Small and Medium “non-choice” schools having great years will be selected by the committee to be part of the 32 D1 schools Mr. Ruden proposes. They will be removed from their once-a-generation opportunity to compete for a state title in a division of similarly-sized schools. Instead they will compete in D1 with schools 4 and 5 times their size. D1 schools who recruit NYC, NJ, Haiti, and England. Would a committee picking the top 32 teams leave Wamogo (20-0) or Cromwell (20-0) out of D1 this year? Would they have left out East Hampton last year? Westbrook two years ago? Next year’s Old Lyme? How would the committee decide when a small/medium school is “good enough” (or not) to make the cut for D1? What is the threshold? For those that are more focused on the annual powerhouse programs, this may seem inconsequential or trivial. But for the scores of schools and communities in the NCCC, Shoreline, ECC D2, CRAL, and BL, we would be looking at an annual uproar. Different town/school each year, but same predicament. And then there is this: it forces coaches into an awful position. Do they go 19-1 or 20-0 and risk getting bumped into D1; or do they take steps to ensure 17-3 or 16-4 so that they are playing against similarly-sized schools with kids from CT and not kids from NYC, NJ, Haiti, England?

    3. The issue of small/medium schools aside… The committee you propose for deciding the D1 top 32, is it the same committee that has given us the current system? You point out that, fundamentally, there is a lack of logic in many of their decisions. Why trust them with “Selection Sunday” powers?

    4. On the other hand, credit is due to CIAC for recognizing and understanding the implications of modern education, and the continuing trend away from “traditional” public schools (non-choice) toward more and more “choice” schools in a variety of forms. CIAC has stayed away from a “choice schools” division for good reason. For those trying to over-simplify this with “put all the choice schools in one division,” do the research of the odd mix of “choice” schools in this state. We end up with LL, urban, and private school powerhouses against some of the state’s smallest rural “vo-ag” schools. Plus Class M schools that offer modest busing programs in order to diversify their student population. Plus all the tech schools. Plus very small magnet schools that only offer a few sports programs (basketball being one of the easiest because of small rosters). Fill out a bracket with all those schools and see if that is the kind of D1 state tournament that we want each year. Sacred Heart vs Nonnewaug. East Catholic vs Innovation. East Hartford vs Goodwin Tech. Hamden vs HMTCA. Weaver vs Achievement First. Bunnell vs Killingly. NFA vs Windham Tech. New London vs Gilbert. Trumbull vs Suffield. Fairfield Prep vs Cheney Tech. NDWH vs Bullard Havens Tech. In a separate state tournament division we would have: Crosby, Windsor, Hillhouse, Cross, Bassick, Danbury, New Britain, etc.

  6. Just want to thank you for your in-depth coverage of FCIAC boys basketball. I was in California the past three weeks and the Ruden Report is the only online game in town. Personally, I think the FCIAC had a great season with some really competitive games. I’m a Warde fan and their games with Danbury, Trumbull, and Ridgefield were great. I could only follow the tremendous Wilton game on your Twitter feed and it was really exciting.

    I can agree with the comments about the CIAC tournament but it just makes me believe that at the high school level, the emphasis should be on winning your league title, and not angling for a good seeding in the State tourney.

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