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The PIAA needs to bring back balanced brackets

Published March 23. 2012 05:01PM


With the PIAA basketball championships taking place today and tomorrow at Penn State University's Bryce Jordan Center, I thought it would be a good time to take a look at a few faults that I have with the way the state tournament is run.

I'd love to see a return to the days of separate Eastern and Western playoffs in the state.

Several years ago when Philadelphia teams joined the PIAA, the 32-team state tournament brackets in each of the classes were altered to reflect where the majority of the teams in each class were located.

Since 75 percent of the Class AAAA teams in the state are located in the East, it gets 75 percent of the playoff teams. So instead of a 16-16 split, there are 24 East teams and 8 West teams in the playoffs.

There other classes aren't quite as unbalanced.

Class AAA has 20 teams from the East and 12 from the West. Class AA has an equal 16 East teams and 16 West teams. The Class A breakdown is 15 from the East and 17 from the West.

At first glance, it appears to be the fair way to award the playoff spots, but I think there are some glaring problems with the system.

When the state playoff brackets are mixed unequally, you can run into a pair of situations that have occurred this year.

* In the second round of the state playoffs, Tri-Valley, the District 11 champion, played Conemaugh Valley High School of Johnstown, the District 6 third place team. The two schools were located nearly 200 miles apart and the distance between them was over three and a half hours.

The PIAA tried to find a midpoint, holding the game at Big Spring High School in Newville, which was a little under two hours away from Tri-Valley and nearly two and a half hours away for Conemaugh Valley. Adding to the distance problem was the fact that the game was played on a Wednesday night, which means a school night for the players and students and a work day for the parents and adult fans of the two teams.

As big a travel nightmare as that was, it could have been a lot worse.

If Marian or Notre Dame of East Stroudsburg had been the District 11 team in Tri-Valley's spot in the bracket, the distance between those schools and Conemaugh Valley would have been even greater.

* The second travel problem that the unequal brackets create will take place on Saturday in the Class AAAA State Championship game.

Chester and Lower Merion, a pair of District 1 teams located just 15 miles apart, will both have to travel nearly three and a half hours to play each other at Penn State University's Bryce Jordan Center.

Villanova University, which hosted the District 1 championship game between the two teams just a couple of weeks ago, would have been a great place to play this game and would be a significantly shorter drive for the two teams and their fans. In the old days, the Chester-Lower Merion game would have been the Eastern Final matchup with the winner more than likely advancing to face a Pittsburgh city school.

As with any playoff system from the NFL on down to Little League baseball, the two best teams don't always meet in the final game nor do they need to meet in the final game.

If it turns out like this year, that the two best teams happen to both be from the East, I don't have a problem with them meeting each other in the "semifinals" rather than the finals.

Sometimes geography and common sense are more important than relying on percentages that give District 1 (eight) as many teams in the Class AAAA playoffs as the entire Western part of the state (eight).

Another problem I have with the current playoff system is that it does away with the old "Eastern Final" and Western Final" games. Those contests are now referred to as "state semifinals."

The reward for winning your fourth state playoff game is still a trip to the PIAA title game. But I don't think winning a game that is called a "state semifinal" has nearly the same prestige and bragging rights that was associated with winning an "Eastern Final."

I've covered many games at Martz Hall in Pottsville over the years that pitted teams battling to advance to a state championship game.

I can tell you from interviewing coaches and players after those games, that the thrill of winning an "Eastern Final" was something real. Sure, earning the trip to Hershey or State College for state title game was huge, but being the "Beast of the East" was just as meaningful.

Winning that game was a title unto itself.

It's a shame that the unequal state brackets have put an end to Eastern and Western Finals and at the same time increased travel for many teams.

I know the PIAA's intent was to be fair and balanced in awarding playoff spots.

But sometime you just have to leave well enough alone. If it's not broke, don't try to fix it.

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