O’Brien: What’s wrong with the state tournament and how to fix it

SHARE O’Brien: What’s wrong with the state tournament and how to fix it

Morgan Park’s Lenell Henry (23) gets fired up after a dunk in the first half against Lanphier. Worsom Robinson/ For the Sun-Times.

PEORIA—There was a major disconnect between the terrific basketball played on the court this weekend at Carver Arena and the dismal turnout in the stands.

The four best teams in Class 3A were all in Peoria. There were teams from all over the state: Chicago, the suburbs and two from central Illinois. Bloomington brought a decent crowd, Springfield Lanphier’s was small.

Class 4A featured two interesting semifinals and the games were as good as expected. But once again, the crowds were bad.

Everyone connected with high school basketball wants to fix the state tournament. Well, lets assume the Illinois High School Association does, despite all the evidence to the contrary.

For the past several years most people assumed that the switch from two classes to four classes in 2008 was at fault. That is definitely when attendance began to thin.

The problem isn’t just the four classes. It is how the four class tournament is setup. The super sectionals need to be rotated more often. In Class 4A it has been impossible for a team from the south suburbs and from central or downstate Illinois to both advance to the state finals. That’s ridiculous, both areas are basketball hotbeds. Not having a representative in the state tournament from those areas hurts the sport.

Look at Saturday’s title games. Morgan Park and Fenwick, which played for the Class 3A state title, are separated by just 19 miles. The schools that played for the Class 4A title, Simeon and Young, are just 11 miles apart. Neither game feels like a state tournament final. If you are setting up a tournament based on geographical representation there is no way teams that close to one another should play for the title.

The massive success of the Public League is another significant factor in the attendance downswing. The Public League has won a state title every year since the switch in 2008. It has won 11 or 12 (depending on the Morgan Park-Fenwick result) of the 20 Class 3A or 4A titles since the split.

The Public League schools don’t bring many of their own fans to the state tournament. There are several good reasons for that, but it isn’t the only issue with Public League dominance. Fans from around the state lose interest in the sport when they see all-star teams from Chicago dominating. A state championship just doesn’t seem possible for traditional high schools in Evanston, South Holland, Edwardsville or Aurora. That’s not good for the sport.

Then there is the Peoria problem. The downtown has crumbled over the past decade. The bare necessities are not available within walking distance of Carver Arena anymore. It’s far from a family-friendly atmosphere overall. I polled fans on Twitter this weekend, asked why they weren’t going to attend the state tournament.

2,273 fans voted in the poll. The results:

46% said it is just too far away

19% said Peoria is the issue

19% said they were attending

16% blamed the four class format

Those results surprised most reporters around the state. It appears the four class format isn’t a major factor anymore. It likely was ten years ago, but time moves quickly. A majority of fans don’t even remember two class basketball. For high school students two class basketball is the distant, distant past and they don’t care at all.

There are several ideas floating around to fix things. Some think the tournament should be split, with Class 3A and 4A moving to the northern part of the state and Class 1A and 2A remaining in central Illinois.

Lately switching to the format used in Michigan has been discussed. All four classes would play on the same weekend. The 1A and 2A semis on Thursday, 3A and 4A semis on Friday and then four title games would be played on Saturday. The key factor with this format is the weekend. It would all happen before the NCAA Tournament gets started. That event’s massive surge in popularity over the past 20 years has also heavily impacted attendance at the state tournament.

There are so, so many ways the IHSA could improve things. It’s time to do something. Continuing with the same failing location and/or format is insanity. At this point there is nothing to lose.

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