More opportunity and competitive balance? Really?

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By Joe Henricksen

There is this myth out there — and I’ve heard it — that four classes provide more opportunities for the student-athlete in basketball. There are people out there that actually believe more student-athletes, more schools and more communities are able to celebrate and experience the original March Madness than under the old two-class system.

The fact is, under the old two-class system, there were a total of 16 schools (Elite Eight in Class A and an Elite Eight in Class AA) that enjoyed the experience of a lifetime — going to “state” and playing in Peoria. Under the current four-class system, there are still 16 teams that head to “state” and get that same exact experience, only split up into four classes instead of two.

Under the old two-class system there were 32 teams and communities around the state of Illinois that celebrated a sectional championship; under the current system there are still 32 teams that cut down those sectional nets. And under the old two-class system, there were 128 regional plaques handed out; and there are still 128 regional plaques awarded to the winnning regional teams. The only difference? The regional and sectional plaques say 4A, 3A, 2A and 1A instead of good ‘ol Class A and Class AA.

Is there really more opportunity? No. At least not when it comes to the overall number of players, students, fans and communities that are able to participate in and enjoy championships in March.

The reality is, there are more opportunities–for the inferior, less-talented team to advance in March.

At the end of the day (or in this case at the end of March), the teams at the very top of Class 3A can compete with those in Class 4A. It’s been that way since we went to four classes in 2008. Those Class 3A teams at the very top, those that are competing for a 3A state championship, can compete for the very same thing in Class 4A. The Rock Islands, the Peoria Notre Dames, the Brooks, the Morgan Parks of 2011 were every bit as good as the top dozen Class 4A schools.

However, there is so little competitive balance right now in Class 3A. The four-class system, when it comes to Class 3A, has made those elite, top teams in 3A that much more dominating. And the cream of the crop in Class 2A and Class 1A are also regularly dominating in a fashion we haven’t seen before.

We all know the basketball talent in Illinois is not spread out equally across the state. Is that reason enough to give those weaker areas of the state an easier opportunity to do what the strong, talented basketball teams do in other parts of the state, year in and year out? That’s what four classes has provided, an avenue and opportunity for average teams, regardless of school enrollments, a chance to advance in March.

Several of the Class 3A sectional fields in Illinois this year — and in recent years since we’ve gone to four classes — have been embarrassing when it comes to competitive balance and overall quality of basketball. While you hate to take anything away from those schools that won those regional and sectional titles, you can’t ignore the sectional play that took place at King, Woodstock North and Ridgewood in the Chicago area alone this year. We had teams with .500 and sub-.500 records advancing to sectional title games and supersectionals.

A basketball team advancing in March is great and memorable for a community, school and basketball program. Yes, those teams that played .500 ball over the course of the season enjoy it as much as the next guy. But it’s not about “coming together at the right time” or simply “March magic.” No, it’s called playing inferior, less-talented teams in a watered down system of stripped down sectionals and basketball mediocrity.

So it comes back to philosophical differences. IHSA executive director Marty Hickman has repeatedly been quoted as saying four classes brings “competitive balance” and that he “doesn’t believe anything has been watered down.”

Go ahead and try telling that to fans that just watched the Class 1A champ win a state championship with an average victory margin of 25 points a game throughout state tournament play. Check out these victory margins for Newark this past March: 46, 27, 21, 25, 13, 20 and 22. But the 1A fans are probably getting used to it. In the last three years the Class 1A state champs have had a grand total of two games (out of 21) decided by fewer than 10 points in state tournament play.

Convince the fans who watched Class 2A champ Hales Franciscan beat up on everyone in March with an average victory margin of 24 points a game there is competitive balance. There wasn’t a single team that came within 13 points of Hales in any state tournament game. That’s even less competitive balance than Seton Academy’s 23 points a game victory margin en route to the 2009 Class 2A state title.

Tell fans the state tournament hasn’t been watered down after watching a team with 15 losses on the season take home a state trophy in Class 3A.

Those fans who have watched Class 3A and 4A supersectionals the past four years in the four-class system will need more convincing. The average margin of victory in Class 3A and 4A supersectional games have jumped by an average of four points in comparison to the final seven years of Class AA in the old two-class system. Just five out of the 16 supersectional games played the past two years have been decided by single digits. And there have been 12 supersectional games in 3A and 4A that have had victory margins of 14-plus points since the four-class system began in 2008.

Competitive balance?

The IHSA and four-class lovers speak so glowingly of the competitive balance and opportunities now available to the membership schools. As shown here in this blog, it depends on how you look at it if you believe that to be true.

The question the Hoops Report still has after four years of four-class basketball is: Why was a three-class system entirely skipped over? That system, as described in a future Hoops Report blog in this state tournament blog series, could have worked, where even I could have been sold.

To read the first blog on this state tournament blog series, go to State Tournament Demise

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