Steve Gunn column: Is it crucial to start seeding teams in district basketball tournaments?

I understand all the arguments in favor of seeding in high school basketball district tournaments.

There was plenty of evidence in our area to support that position in the past two weeks.

But I may not necessarily agree that seeding is so crucial – and at least one prominent local coach sees it the same way.

For anyone who doesn’t know what I’m talking about, it’s simple. For years in Michigan, the district tournament brackets for high school boys and girls basketball have been determined by random draw.

It doesn’t matter how any of the teams did in the regular season. You draw who you draw.

Ideally, the draw will produce a bracket that will lead to an exciting district championship game, between the two best teams. But that doesn’t always happen.

Two good examples come from the boys Division 1 district tournament at Muskegon High School two weeks ago, and the girls Division 1 district at Reeths-Puffer last week.

In both tournaments, Muskegon and Grand Haven drew each other in the first round, on the first night of the tournament. A lot of people thought that was a shame. On the boys side, the Big Reds and Buccaneers were considered two of the best teams in the area. On the girls side, Muskegon and Grand Haven were clearly the two best teams around.

But because of the luck of the draw, one outstanding team in each game was going to be eliminated on the very first night of the tournament, while lesser teams played on.

In both cases, Grand Haven lost. The postseason ended for the 13-win boys team and 17-win girls team, almost before it began.

A even more stark example was in the Division 2 girls district at Whitehall High School, where the two tournament favorites – Oakridge and Whitehall – drew each other to play in the first round on the first night.

Whitehall’s No. 12 Abby Seeger defends against Sophia Wiard. of Oakridge in a district tournament game. Photo/Sherry Wahr

Oakridge came into the game 17-2. Whitehall was 16-3. The two West Michigan Conference rivals split their games during the regular season, and would have made ideal opponents in the district title game.

Instead they met right off the bat, Oakridge won, and the Whitehall girls, who had their best season in years, were suddenly done. It did not seem fair.

Oakridge went on to play Fruitport in the finals. The Trojans earned a berth into that game by upsetting Montague in the first round and beating Orchard View in the semifinals.

But the Trojans had only won three games in the regular season – and Oakridge beat Fruitport by 38 points in the finals.

A lot of people pointed to that district as a prime example of why the tournaments should be seeded, with the top teams playing the weakest teams in the first round.

Part of my brain had to agree.

But on Wednesday last week, when I was at Whitehall High School to watch Oakridge and Spring Lake play in the girls semifinals, I caught a glimpse of veteran Fruitport girls basketball coach Bob German, whose team had just won the first semifinal of the night.

Coach German was smiling. He looked proud and excited. I remember thinking at the time, if he’s that happy, imagine how his players must feel. After a season full of hard work, and their share of disappointment, suddenly the Trojans had qualified for a championship game, and would be playing for a trophy.

How could anyone not feel a little bit happy for those girls?

The whole thing left me confused about how I felt about the seeding issue. So I called an expert – longtime Spring Lake boys basketball coach Bill Core. I figured he would argue in favor of seeding, because most years he has one of the better teams around.

But I was wrong. Core likes things just the way they are, because he believes the random draw gives everyone more of a fresh start in the tournament, and every team more of a chance to make that ‘Cinderella’ run.

“I’m old school,” Core explained. “If you seed I don’t think you will ever have any more Cinderella stories. You’ll never have that ‘Hoosiers’ experience. A sixth seed would have to have three upsets to win a district. Nobody is going to have three upsets in a district.”

Core cited another Fruitport basketball story, from back in the day.

“I remember a long time ago, Fruitport got a bye in the first round, then won their semifinal game, and made it to the district championship,” he said. “They wore t-shirts during warm-ups before the finals, saying ‘district finalists.’ They knew they weren’t going to beat Muskegon Heights in that game, but they wore those shirts proudly, anyway.”

“Seeding would take away that March Madness mystique, and the excitement of the draw.”

In other words, the random draw gives more teams, and more kids, the chance to win a game or two in the tournament, perhaps pull off that big upset, and have more fun. And high school sports are supposed to be about fun.

There are good arguments to be made on both sides of this debate, but all things considered, I think I agree with Coach Core.

1 Comment

  1. Michael Glass

    March 13, 2019 at 12:29 pm

    I loved the article, but I would like to explain how seeding and random draws can coexist….Districts would be seeded by moving top seeds to different districts in the area. from there, you could blind draw the actual district field. Pros: The best teams would be meeting more then likely in a regional game instead of the first round, teams would probably not meet each other for a 3rd time in a season like conference teams usually do. Seeding would be regional. Cons: last game turn around time from last game of the season to Mondays first round games. Teams would not know who they are playing until Saturday giving them only 1 day to prepare (could be a pro). Meetings would need to be done Saturday for blind draw.
    Thank you for your insight.

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