Joe Davidson

Did Northern California fix its failing basketball playoff system? The verdict is in.

CIF executive director Roger Blake awards a trophy to the Elk Grove girls basketball team after the Thundering Herd won the Northern California Regional Division II title game at Sleep Train Arena in 2016.
CIF executive director Roger Blake awards a trophy to the Elk Grove girls basketball team after the Thundering Herd won the Northern California Regional Division II title game at Sleep Train Arena in 2016.

Coaches grumbled when they heard about the changes, and then they fumed even more when the high school basketball brackets were released on Sunday.

Coaches compete to the core, to the point that it isn't a postseason without complaint, and the good folks at the CIF offices in Sacramento heard plenty of it.

The Northern California basketball playoffs had a different look, a "competitive equity" model to replace the decadeslong formula of seeding teams based on enrollment, and guess what?

It works. It's a slam dunk, and kudos to the seedings committee that started brainstorming weeks ago to ensure this would be a success.

The old model was failing to the tune of horrific early blowouts, sometimes by more than 50 points. No one wins there. It was naive thinking that a Division V private-school program of some 200 students with national recruits was on the same level as a public school from the hills with kids who won't even play at the community-college level. So the CIF moved some of those small schools up to higher divisions.


The strength of the CIF and its 10 sections is that they're always open to ideas of how to improve the product. The CIF relies on input and feedback from its sections and the member schools, and then matters go to a vote. Competitive equity wasn't a CIF power play to generate money. It was a powerful play to strengthen the game.

Still, the scrutiny with the new model was that too many seeding members relied on data and not in-person observation. That's fair. I have seen selection-committee members who haven't watched a girls game in years, so I can understand when a coach wonders about selection qualifications.

But when you get enough members on committees going over information, and then going over it again before deciding on final seedings, that's progress.

The first round of the playoffs on Wednesday, from Divisions I through VI, offered a menu of games that went to the wire. Top seeds were challenged by lower ones, and that was rarely the case in previous seasons.

The presumption of blowouts keeps crowds away. The presumption of close games results in sellouts. It's a win-win for all.

"This is the highlight of the season for so many of these kids, and we want to create as much fair competition as we can," CIF executive director Roger Blake said. "The complaints? We hear it. But that's OK. That comes with the territory. The results still bear out that this is a lot better than what we had before. We have teams on a better, more even playing field.

"We've said for years that our job here is to provide equitable competition. It doesn't guarantee a team a win or a championship, but the Southern California sections have used this sort of model for years, and it works. Did it transfer up here? Looks like it. It's not perfect, but the scoreboard is a lot better than what we've seen before."

The details in the data are telling. The CIF crunched the first-round numbers and were delighted with the results (the Open Division started play Friday).

The closer games are especially evident in girls.

A year ago, the eight girls D-I games were decided by an average of 24 points. This season: 12.1.

In D-II, the margin of victory average was 12.2 points, compared to 30.7 a year ago. Four of the eight D-II girls games on Wednesday were decided by 10 points or fewer, including top-seeded Pleasant Valley of Chico beating No. 16 Sacramento on a buzzer-beating 3-pointer.

The boys had more competitive games than girls last year and it was true again after the first round.

"For all divisions, as a coach or a player, I can now look at my brackets and say, 'We have a chance,' or coaches will say, 'This will really be a tough game,' " Blake said. "That's the way it should be.

"Having been a long-time coach, I know how coaches compete. But when someone says about being moved up in divisions, 'Oh, we're being penalized for winning,' I cringe. Wait, we tell kids every day in practice to be the best, to strive to be the best, and now that the biggest test is here, you suddenly want to play down? That's wrong."

The CIF introduced competitive equity into the NorCal and state football brackets in the fall of 2016 with terrific results. A lot of games were thrillers, never mind the sometimes glaring difference in enrollments.

School enrollment does not decide how good a team is. That's old thinking, and the CIF understood that.

"Teams compete in different levels, elite down to non-elite," Blake said. "In math, you don't suddenly take the trigonometry student and put him into general math any more than you'd take the general math student and put him or her into trig. Where do you fit? That's our thinking. We're following a classroom model."

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