Is Utah’s new high school playoff format working?
Jun 02, 2020 11:42AM
By Justin Adams
By Justin Adams | [email protected]
This year, the Utah High School Activities Association changed the way it runs state tournaments. First, it began allowing all teams to participate in the state tournament. Second, it began seeding the tournament based on a formula, the Ratings Percentage Index, or RPI, rather than on how a team finished in its region.
Why did UHSAA make these changes? Contrary to some Facebook commenters, it wasn’t for the purpose of giving every team a “participation trophy” in the form of a state tournament invite. The actual reason was to create a more competitive state tournament, as counterintuitive as that may seem. The question is, were they successful?
Prior to these changes, a team had to finish in the top four of their six-school region to make the state tournament. This meant that in certain deeper regions, a talented team with the potential to go far in the tournament wouldn’t even get a chance. On the flip side, the runner-up or even the winner of a weaker region might be bounced in the first round. Seeding the tournament based on region rankings sometimes led to anticlimactic tournaments in which the best two teams happened to meet in the quarter or semifinals, rather than the finals.
The idea is that separating tournament qualification and seeding from region finish should ensure that the best teams make it into the tournament and are also seeded by how good they are, rather than geography.
A perfect example of this would be this year’s Lone Peak boys basketball team. The Knights finished fifth in the very competitive Region 4 standings (only two games separated the second place team from the fifth place team). In previous years, they would have been left out of the playoffs. However, the RPI formula (which considers a team’s record, its strength of schedule and its opponents strength of schedule) rated them the 12th best team in the 6A classification. They turned out to be even better than that, as they made it all the way to the semifinals where they lost by two to the No. 1 seed Davis. The difference between being left out of the tournament completely and being a basket away from the championship game was a change in tournament rules.
Similarly in 5A, Provo High’s boys basketball team finished second-to-last in its eight-team region. However, they made it to the quarterfinals of the state tournament where they also lost by just one basket to Farmington (who themselves lost by one basket to the eventual champions).
While Provo and Lone Peak show how the new format can work well, they were the exceptions this year. The vast majority of teams who finished in the bottom of their region didn’t do much at their respective state tournaments.
In 5A football, the eight teams who finished in the bottom two of their regions went a combined 0-7 and were outscored by a combined total of 78 to 305 in the first round of the playoffs. The eighth team, Cottonwood High, declined their invitation to the playoffs after an 0-10 season in which they were outscored by a combined total of 579-13.
Similarly in 5A girls soccer, the bottom two teams from each region all failed to advance past the first round and were outscored by a total of 2 to 38.
These examples might lead some to question why weaker teams are being subjected to humiliating blowout losses for their final game of the season.
One side effect of this change is that it makes region realignment a little easier. Under the previous rules, you wouldn’t want the six best schools to be in a region together, even if that’s what made the most sense geographically, because it would mean two of those six teams would be punished each year just for being in a better region. Now, UHSAA can form regions that make more sense geographically without having to worry as much about competitive repercussions.
UHSAA Assistant Director Jon Oglesby told the Standard-Examiner before this year that “the goal of the RPI is to create a more competitive state tournament, which some coaches believe will be accomplished.”
As previously noted, many of the lower-seeded teams experienced some pretty lopsided losses in the first rounds of state tournaments this year, but that’s bound to happen in any tournament that seeds the best teams against the worst teams in the first round. But does the different seeding strategy result in more competitive games later on in the tournament?
To try to answer that question, the City Journals looked at the scores of all the games in the boys and girls state basketball tournaments for both the 5A and 6A classifications comparing the average margin of victory (both by round and throughout the tournament as a whole) to last year’s tournament to see if there was a noticeable difference.
On the boys side, there was almost no change at all. In 5A, the average margin of victory throughout the 2019 tournament was 10.7 points. In 2020, the exact same. At the 6A level, the average margin of victory actually increased from 12.5 to 12.7 points.
However, there may be some evidence that the seeding resulted in better matchups toward the end of the tournaments. In 6A, the average margin of victory during the semifinal round dropped from 9.5 to 4 points, while in 5A, it dropped from 8 to 2 points. (Granted, this is a small sample size of just two games per classification. We will have to wait for future years to say whether or not the new system consistently produces more competitive games in the late stages of the state tournament.)
On the girls side, there was a little more evidence of increased competitive balance throughout the competition. In 6A, the average margin of victory throughout the tournament dropped from 20.5 to 18.5 points, while 5A dropped from 15.1 to 12.2 points.
The new playoff format has introduced a few quirks that may or may not have been anticipated by UHSAA.
Lone Peak sanctions – This fall the Lone Peak football team had five of its wins vacated due to a sanction. Under previous rules, that would have meant they would likely miss the state tournament. But because every team goes to the tournament now, Lone Peak still got to go and got seeded as the 20th best team, even though they were in fact much better than that. That was bad news for their first round opponent, No. 13th-seeded Riverton. Through no fault of their own, Riverton had to play a much better team in the first round than they should have and subsequently lost 37-8.
Region races – Many coaches have bemoaned the fact that winning one’s region doesn’t matter as much anymore. It’s not a guarantee that a region winner will be seeded higher by the RPI system than the region’s runner-up, which is critical when considering that first-round byes are awarded to the three to five highest-rated teams.
Region rematches – The previous state tournament purposefully placed teams from the same region on opposite sides of the bracket. Now, with seeding being untied from region alignment, you get instances like the Timpanogos football team losing its regular season finale to region foe Timpview by a score of 52-23, only to then get matched up with them again in the first round of the state playoffs, losing by a similar score just one week later.