As the state's high school basketball teams work their way through the season each year, it's about this part of the schedule when I come to the realization there's at least one team out there that should go to state but won't because its conference is too strong.
This year, like last year, a good case can be made that both the Juneau-Douglas and Ketchikan girls should go to state. But only one team will because Region V-Class 4A has just one berth at the Class 4A state tournament. And, like last year, there will be a team or more teams in the tournament from another region that really aren't one of the best eight teams in the state.
That's why I feel it's time for the Alaska School Activities Association to change the way it selects teams for the Class 4A state tournament.
I believe the time has come for the state tournament to include the tournament champions from the four Class 4A regions, plus four at-large teams chosen from across the state. The at-large teams would be selected by a panel of one representative from each region and Don Lamprecht, who created the WPI (Winning Percentage Index) formula last year as a representative from ASAA.
For the past five or six years, the state tournament has included three teams from Region IV (Anchorage), three teams from Region III (Mat-Su Valley, Kenai Peninsula and Kodiak), one team from Region VI (Fairbanks) and one team from Region V (Southeast). Before that, two teams from each region advanced to state.
But each selection method had its unfairness, and at-large teams can correct that problem by making the selection more fair.
The current system, where only one team comes from Fairbanks and Southeast, is unfair to teams in those regions when there are two or three state-caliber teams.
For example, when the Ketchikan girls beat Juneau in overtime last year in the Region V tournament that meant Juneau didn't qualify for state. But it was also a year when Juneau posted victories over eventual state champion East Anchorage, 1999 state champion Palmer (third place) and state tournament participants Ketchikan, Chugiak, Bartlett and Lathrop. Juneau also played state runner-up Colony during the regular season and was in the same tournament but didn't face Wasilla, meaning Juneau had a chance to play all eight teams in last year's state tournament and had victories over six of them. Sounds like a state-caliber team to me.
But the old system, where two teams came from each region, was unfair to the larger conferences. Region III has eight teams, Region IV has six, while the other two regions have just three teams. There have been years where the state's third-best team came from one of the larger regions, but couldn't advance to state.
Two examples of that were in 1993 when the Soldotna girls beat Kenai in a Region III battle for the state title and in 1989 when the East Anchorage boys beat West Anchorage in a Region IV tilt. Both times the third-ranked team in the various state polls also came from the same region (the Palmer girls and the Dimond boys) but neither got to go to state.
My feeling is the state tournament should be a showcase of the state's best teams, and I don't think we can fairly say that with the Class 4A state tournament. The other classification state tournaments are fairly equitable, with the same number of teams qualifying from each similar-sized region. But the Class 4A state tourney, which is the state's showcase tournament, has problems.
That's why it's time to invite some at-large teams teams to state. It will help insure the state's top teams are competing in Alaska's showcase tournament.
ASAA can help this transition by using the WPI standings to pick at-large teams for the state tournament. WPI is similar to the RPI (Ratings Percentage Index) used by the NCAA to pick its national tournament field, and three factors are considered in the formula (a team's record against other Alaska Class 4A teams, its opponents' records and its opponents' opponents' records). Right now ASAA only uses the WPI to seed the tournament once the eight teams are already qualified, not pick the state teams.
Last year's test run with the WPI gave me enough confidence in its accuracy that I feel it can be a tool for selecting the at-large teams at state. For example, both the Juneau (14-10 overall) and Kenai (16-6) girls last year ranked significantly higher in the WPI than state qualifiers Chugiak (13-7) and Bartlett (10-12), who were the second and third teams from Region IV. Juneau was the second team from Region V in the WPI standings (after Ketchikan) and Kenai was the fourth team from Region III (behind Palmer, Colony and Wasilla).
Granted, Chugiak was making a run late in the season after players got over injuries and its WPI was somewhat close to Kenai's. But I feel a case could have been made to invite Juneau and Kenai over Chugiak and Bartlett last year.
Even though this is only the second year of the WPI, it's already having a positive effect on scheduling. While Juneau has been able to attract the top teams because of its basketball history, Sitka and Ketchikan have always struggled to get games against other Class 4A Alaska teams. It was easier and cheaper for the teams up north to fly on south to Seattle than it was to stop in Juneau, Sitka or Ketchikan.
This year Sitka and Juneau have been working in tandem to bring Anchorage teams to Southeast for games, meaning fans in those towns will get to see more in-state competition. The Dimond girls played in both Juneau and Sitka two weeks ago, and the Bartlett boys will visit both towns next weekend. Juneau and Sitka are still having to pay about $1,000 a game to bring teams in, but at least they're getting to play more Alaska teams.
These inter-region competitions can only help make the WPI more accurate, so let's use the formula to pick teams at state. I remember Juneau girls coach Jim Hamey was disappointed last year to find out the formula was only going to be used for seeding purposes, and Lamprecht said he'd like to see the WPI used to help pick future state tournament teams.
Using the WPI to pick four at-large teams will insure the state tournament features the teams that won all season and played the best teams they could schedule.
Charles Bingham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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