One thing is certain as high school basketball section tournaments begin this week: Some schools that should be included in Class 4A championship conversations won’t have an opportunity to fulfill their aspirations.
Three girls’ teams and four boys’ squads ranked in the top 10, according to Minnesota Basketball News’ ratings, will be ousted in section play because geography forced them into section tournaments with other rated teams.
If the coaches had their way, it would be different. Responding to an inquiry by the Star Tribune of all 62 boys’ and girls’ coaches in Class 4A, 74% of the boys teams’ and 82% of the girls’ squads were in favor of seeding the teams 1 through 64.
The result would provide “more excitement throughout the three weeks in March similar to the NCAA tournament,” said Minnetonka boys’ coach Bryce Tesdahl, who also has coached at Class 4A schools East Ridge and New Prague.
Making that happen is another matter. The state’s basketball coaches associations and the Minnesota State High School League, which runs state tournaments, have been at odds for nearly 15 years on the issue.
Various proposals have advocated seeding based on won-loss record, Class 4A results, head-to-head results, results against top-ranked teams, home and away results, strength of schedule, computer rankings and various polls.
“This is an absolute no-brainer,” St. Louis Park boys’ coach David Breitenbucher said. “This would increase interest in Minnesota high school basketball to a level that would reach far beyond basketball fans.”
Prep basketball advocates thought the idea for seeding would gain momentum once the league approved a 32-team bracket for Class 6A football starting in 2015. Instead, it has gone the opposite direction. In June, an attempt to change basketball failed to even get a vote at a league board meeting.
“It’s become very frustrating,” said Pat Barrett, league liaison for the girls’ basketball coaches association.
The High School League says it operates under an umbrella — what’s good for one class must be good for all classes. It is mindful of the impact on other sports wanting to follow suit and, as a statewide body, places a premium on geographical representation from its eight sections.
“Our state tournaments are a celebration of section champions,” MSHSL Executive Director Erich Martens said.
Some coaches favor a less dramatic approach: seeding one through 16 once teams reach the section finals — the top two teams from each section. That proposal was on the table in June, when the league’s board of directors didn’t motion for a vote on the matter. More than half of the board members are from jurisdictions in the three smaller classes, where the change would not apply.
“It’s just better for the sport, and if the MSHSL doesn’t want to be biased and show favoritism for certain sports, then they would do this,” Chanhassen girls’ coach Arthur Crutch said. “There is a reason it was changed for football, and it works.”
Owatonna boys’ coach Josh Williams provided yet another possible alternative — like football — that is used in Wisconsin.
“Create a 5A class in basketball that would encompass the largest and most competitive programs in the state,’’ Williams said. “That could be the largest 32, 48, whatever the number may be, but all would be located in the metro area. Thus the current setup with sections that are either loaded with tons of top-tier teams or those that are really weak becomes a nonissue.”
League associate director Bob Madison, who serves as its liaison for football and boys’ basketball, countered, “There is data that proves the more classes you have, the point spread between the winners and losers increases.”
Section representation in 4A skews heavily metro at the state tournament. Only seven schools — Brainerd, Duluth East, Moorhead, Owatonna, Rochester Century, Rochester John Marshall and Rochester Mayo — are outside the metro area. In the past seven years, only two — the Brainerd boys in 2013, the Mayo girls in 2015 — reached state.
Lakeville North girls’ coach Shelly Clemons said she favors an NCAA tourney-style proposal despite being a prohibitive section favorite throughout the years.
The Panthers have been a state basketball power over the past two decades. They won the Section 1 title the past four years, and eight of the past 10. The boys’ team won the section championship the past eight years.
“The best teams should have more of an equal opportunity to go further into the postseason,” Clemons said. “Also, it would allow us to schedule more nonconference games with teams from all different sections.”
Wayzata has been one of those top teams in girls’ basketball. But the Trojans, ranked No. 4, are in Section 6 with defending state champion Hopkins.
“Wayzata has been probably the second- or third-best team in the state for the past few years, and they never can make it due to being in the same section as Hopkins,” Lakeville South girls’ coach Angie Iverson-Ohnstad said. “It would be great to see the top teams in the state compete for the title.”
Among boys’ teams this year, Section 2 includes No. 1-ranked Eden Prairie, No. 9 Chaska, No. 10 Prior Lake and No. 11 Shakopee. Three of them will be eliminated in section play.
Seeding 4A “rewards the teams with the best regular seasons with the correct path to the state tournament,” Woodbury boys’ coach Kent Getzlaff said. “This system doesn’t guarantee the best teams will make the state tournament, but it does make all eight state tournament entrants go through a similar path to get there. This will add significant excitement to basketball around the state.”
Some coaches don’t want to lose the ability to represent the state regionally.
“Representation from all areas of the state is important,” said Buffalo boys’ coach Josh Ortmann, who played on the Bison state championship team in 2007 while representing Section 8. “It always seems to work out where the four most deserving teams end up in the semifinals.”
For others it’s about practicality.
“With us being an outlier, travel wouldn’t be an issue,” Moorhead girls’ coach Jed Carlson said. “We travel anyway.”
Attendance for both the boys’ and girls’ state tournaments has fallen over the past three years. The boys’ tourney has fallen 19% to 59,314 in 2019, while the girls’ event drew 31,504, down 14%. All state tournament ticket sales — the league’s top revenue source — dropped 13.3% a year ago.
Said Martens last year: “There probably is a limit to what our attendance can do.”
Some coaches believe a seeded tournament would boost attendance and help the league offset its financial difficulties. Ticket prices for the state tournament range from $10 to $21 per day.
“Communities will enjoy going up against teams it doesn’t usually see and fans may be excited to see a special player they’ve never watched,” Eagan boys’ coach Kevin McKenzie said.
Since seeding of the state tournaments began, the average margin of victory in the 4A quarterfinals has been 16.1 points for boys and 14.6 points for girls. In the past seven years, only 25% of the boys’ and girls’ quarterfinals games have been decided by single digits.
“If we actually want the best teams in the state tournament and get attendance up at the event, then we need the most competitive games possible,” New Prague girls’ coach Luke Swedberg said.