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Discussing the merits of divisional tournaments

February 7, 2011

When he’s not coaching at East Providence, Alex Butler is serving as the vice president for the Rhode Island High School Basketball Coaches’ Association. With the playoffs set to start soon, now seems as good a time as any to debate the importance of the divisional tournaments, which used to be the old way in which champions were crowned.

Some high school hoop-related tidbits to pass along …

You could say the three divisional tournaments in boys’ basketball are suffering from the same symptoms normally associated with middle child syndrome. Blame such thinking on our minds being somewhere else, the focus instead on the chaos and suspense hovering over the squeeze-everything-in gauntlet needed to complete the regular season. There’s also a great deal of buzz in the air surrounding the open state tournament, the new frontier that will lead to the crowning of one champion.
Caught in the crosshairs is the divisional format, i.e. the old way in which postseason business was conducted. The multi-tiered setup that pits familiar foes against each other remains on the docket, Friday, Feb. 18 serving as the startup date and culminating on Sunday the 27th with a tripleheader at CCRI-Warwick. All told there are four rounds scheduled with preliminary and quarterfinal matchups taking place on school grounds before shifting to the Vincent A. Cullen Fieldhouse for the semis and finals.
With so many coaches around these parts talking about the prestige associated with gaining admittance to the 16-team state tournament, one can’t help but wonder if there’s any sort of kicker to the divisional round. Can a strong showing transform the fortune of those perceived as fringe teams, a train of thought in line with an NCAA bubble team heading into postseason conference play? Likewise can teams already in line for a grander payday use the divisional exercise as a springboard to achieve an even higher seed for states?
Seeking answers/clarifications, we turn to East Providence head coach Alex Butler, also the vice president of the Rhode Island High School Basketball Coaches’ Association.
“One of the first things we talked about when the open tournament was brought up was that you have to put a lot of emphasis on the regular season because for most schools, that divisional tournament is a realistic goal and is something they can reach and get into,” was how Butler began the light-shedding process. “We wanted to keep the focus on the divisional tournament first and see how that plays out. When that was said and done, we had to keep (the field) at 10 teams as opposed to the 12, which we had done previously, which was for tiebreaking purposes.
“There was some discussion about (the open tournament) as far as seeding. Do you go by the regular-season seeding, or, what if a team gets hot (in the divisional setting)? Do they bump themselves up? What happens if you beat a team twice during the regular season, then all of a sudden lose to them in the quarterfinals of the divisional tournament?” Butler went on. “A lot of items become subjective, so (the Coaches’ Association) opted to keep the seeding for (the open tournament) based on the regular season so teams know where they stand.”
Note: You should commit the above quotes to memory, as there will be a quiz later. Now, back to the column.
Between the divisional and open tournaments, teams will face the extremely difficult task of winning six straight stressful, do-or-die games in roughly a three-week span. The total stretches to eight if you take into account the preliminaries. With that in mind, do the teams in line to appear in the open derby simply take a laissez-faire approach to the divisional tournament?
“If you’re the No. 1 seed after the regular season, what are you playing for in the divisional tournament? You then have to look at it from a competitive standpoint. You’re preparing your team for the open tournament by going out there to win the divisional tournament,” Butler said. “Guess what? You’re playing on a bigger floor with three officials for the semis and finals. Those are all things that are going to happen in the open tournament, so that gets your team more prepared for that.”
Butler explained that the winners of the three division postseason events gain automatic entry into the state event. The possibility exists, then, for a seed lower than No. 8 in each division to make states if it catches fire and wins its respective playoff tourney. For example, the No. 9 seed gets hot and wins the Division I title. The eighth seed, based on its regular season finish, would then be bumped out of the state field.
“You do have a chance to win your way into the open tournament,” said Butler.
The message is clear then: to ensure reservations for the open tournament, continue to chart a winning course over the final week-and-a-half of the regular season. Don’t put all of your eggs in the divisional bracket. That’s why they call it the hard road in the first place.
If the divisional tournament were to commence today, Shea (10-5) would be the in the top half of the Div. II bracket with Tolman (8-6) positioned in the bottom-five. Funny how it works out that both teams are scheduled to meet tonight at Donaldson Gymnasium.
Much has changed for the Raiders and Tigers since splitting two meetings back in December. Shea head coach Matt Pita no longer has junior Joh’lon Hazard, he of nearly 20 ppg, at his disposal. The Raiders have continued to hum along in his absence, winning five straight since falling to Westerly 2 ½ weeks ago. Tolman’s camp has been buoyed by the emergence of sophomore Juan Velez, the Middletown transfer who started the year on junior varsity. Velez has demonstrated a knack for finishing at the rim with flair, which he did several times en route to 17 points in Friday’s 80-66 loss to North Providence.
What Tigers head coach Mike Kayata yearns for is a victory against an upper echelon unit. On the season Tolman owns just two wins against teams above .500. “Monday is going to be another test for us, but we’ve got to beat a team with a good record.”
East Providence (6-7) is looking at a make-or-break week that consists of two back-to-backs. As Butler noted the good news is that the Townies have poured through the scouting reports for each one of their upcoming opponents, one of which is division-leading St. Raphael (11-3) Friday night in Pawtucket. Now it’s simply a matter, says the E.P. coach, of going through a refresher course.
North Smithfield is a club that appears to be heading in the right direction. Winners of five of their last seven, the Northmen (8-7) close out Div. III play this week with games against Davies Tech (0-14), Mount St. Charles (4-10) and Johnston (12-0).

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