Another two-year classification block is upon us, and, not surpisingly, so is the semiannual power points backlash.
This time around, the top three football teams from each section — nine total — get automatic playoff berths, while the next seven highest-rated teams earn playoff berths based on power points.
With the unbalanced sections in Division I, for instance, the system is already up for criticism. Avondale Westview is a legitimate playoff threat, but good luck finding another team in Section I that will be anything but first-round fodder when November rolls around.
The Arizona Interscholastic Association keeps tweaking the computer-based system that determines postseason seeding, but what’s really needed is an overhaul.
“None of it makes sense to me,” Saguaro coach John Sanders said. “It’s just getting worse.”
Luckily, the answer is just one state away.
For years, New Mexico employed an archaic way to select playoff participants, giving berths to the top two teams in each district and randomly assigning them to play each other. It didn’t matter if three teams from one district were better than every one from another, or if the conference’s two best teams were set to face off in the first round.
The first big stride came a few years ago, when the New Mexico schools organized a selection committee to determine which teams made the playoffs. Representatives — usually principals or athletic directors — from each district met up and went over a list of criteria to decide which teams should make the playoffs and how they should be seeded.
But bias crept in because each district’s mouthpiece would feel pressured to pull for their own schools.
“It was a very political deal,” said Randy Adrian, the assistant director of the New Mexico Activities Association, the state’s equivalent of the AIA.
As a result, last year the NMAA took over the selection process, and it was met with positive reaction. No longer were there hidden interests, but instead a true search for fairness.
The NMAA uses a four-person committee for each classification and weighs several factors beyond the committee’s opinion: overall record, head-to-head results, strength of schedule, district finish, each school’s input and a coaches poll.
The criteria has many similarities to the AIA’s power points system. But with the addition of common sense, obvious inadequacies can be rectified in ways that can’t be inputted into a computer formula.
“We went from 40 percent (of schools) pleased to about 95 percent,” Adrian said. “We had very, very few people that were upset. I can probably count on one hand out of 121 schools how many (negative reactions) we received.”
Brian Bolitho, the director of business media at the AIA, said he wasn’t aware of how New Mexico seeds its postseason tournaments, but is happy with Arizona’s current system.
“I do think the (power points) system works, definitely,” he said. “When you look at the rankings system, the best teams are going to get to that final four or final two.”
But that’s not really the issue. In any given tournament, there usually won’t be many more than eight teams that have the talent to win a title. It would take real work to leave title contenders out of the field.
A selection committee, though, can make sure the best teams don’t face off until later in the playoffs.
Look at last year’s 5A Division I postseason. St. Mary’s was the No. 11 seed in the field despite a 4-7 record. Tucson Salpointe was the No. 6 seed, and while a 10-2 record was fine, none of those wins came against East Valley squads. As it turned out, those two teams played in the first round, guaranteeing one of them a berth in the quarterfinals. The Lancers demolished St. Mary’s, 41-3, before losing to Desert Vista by two touchdowns to end their playoff journey.
On the flip side, Desert Ridge and Chandler also faced off in the first round. The Wolves lost three games in the regular season, one to Peoria Centennial by six points, and another to Desert Vista when Chandler was without star quarterback Brett Hundley. Desert Ridge lost by one point twice in the first four weeks, but won its final five regular-season games and was clearly better than a No. 10 seed by the time the postseason began.
A selection committee could have moved Chandler and Desert Ridge up and dropped St. Mary’s and Salpointe down. The same thing could be argued in 5A-II, where Marcos de Niza and Centennial faced off in the quarterfinals while Sandra Day O’Connor grabbed the No. 2 overall seed ahead of both teams. O’Connor lost in the state quarterfinals.
“I really do like how New Mexico does it,” Marcos de Niza coach Roy Lopez said. “If you add in knowledge from people without bias, it would probably be good. We’ll see how it works out this year, but I’m always up for change.”
Saguaro is another example. The Sabercats dealt with injuries early and dropped a pair of regular-season games. By the time the postseason rolled around, it was pretty clear they and Tucson Canyon del Oro were the two best teams in 4A-I. Saguaro was the No. 3 seed and won the state championship, lucky to get the Dorados in the championship game instead of the semifinals.
“The system is where it is, but it’s always something that can be looked at,” Bolitho said.
There are drawbacks, of course. It would be much more work for the AIA, and new criticisms would undoubtedly surface, charging the selection committee with manipulating matchups.
But Adrian said that’s just part of the job.
“People are going to be unhappy, but we don’t have anything to lose or gain,” he said. “Our job is to get the best teams in there.”
The idea isn’t unanimous here either. McClintock’s Matt Lewis prefers the power point method because he can try to figure out a possible first-round playoff matchup before it is set, giving him time to scout the opponent.
Chaparral’s Charlie Ragle agrees with Bolitho, saying the best team will eventually become champion. But this is about the entire tournament. Maybe Chandler would have lost in the first round either way, but drawing Desert Ridge meant one of the better teams in the state would not make the quarterfinals.
Ragle knows what it’s like to get a tough draw. Chaparral and Saguaro looked like 4A-I’s two best teams in 2007, but a shocking comeback by Paradise Valley to beat Chaparral in the regular season dropped the Firebirds to a No. 5 seed for the playoffs.
Instead of getting a shot at Saguaro in the title game, the teams played in the semifinals on a muddy, rain-soaked field, with the Sabercats slipping and sliding to a 12-6 victory.
“Nothing haunts me more than that game,” Ragle said. “I wish we could have gotten them inside on the dry field.”
No system is perfect. College basketball has a similar selection committee, and it gets skewered every year for leaving a certain bubble team out and putting another one in.
But combining built-in criteria with the human thought process is the right move, because it can account for factors the computer does not see.
“Everything’s not black and white,” Sanders said. “We lost to (Glendale) Cactus in overtime (in 2010) by one point with eight guys out. The computer didn’t know our guys were puking and we were eight guys down. None of that’s considered. Even if you asked (Cactus coach) Larry (Fetkenhier), he would tell you the truth. Coaches know when we’re fully manned and when we’re not. Coaches know way more than a computer.”