Going the Rounds: A look back at this year’s basketball season

Among high school coaches, fans and the media, one of the first rites of spring (assuming there will be a spring) is dissecting the pros and cons of recently completed state basketball tournaments.

This year’s tourneys provided more fodder than most. It was the first year of a provocative new format, based on a Ratings Performance Index system that may well extended to other Washington prep sports in the system.

Addressing complaints that the previous format often matched two high-caliber teams in loser-out regional tests, the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association established a two-tiered alternative for the 16 districts survivors in each classification.

The top eight in the statewide RPI rankings would enter a double-elimination regional/state bracket, with both teams guaranteed some type of state appearance. The ninth-through-16th seeds would face off in the single-elimination bracket, with only regional winners advancing to state.

The computerized RPI index was based on each team’s record, plus the records of its opponents and its opponents’ opponents.

Prior to the season, I considered this system flawed, but believed that it still represented a significant improvement over the previous method of using a set formula (District IV No. 1 vs. District I No. 3, for example) to determine the pairings for single-elimination regional games.

As it developed, the new format contained more flaws than I imagined. But I’ll stick with my conclusion that it was better than the previous system.

The RPI formula needs some tweaks, but not a complete overhaul.

Hoquiam’s boys emerged as the poster children for the shortcomings of the system.

Returning three starters from a team that placed sixth in the state 1A tournament last year, the Grizzlies appeared to possess the resume of a contender again this season. Although erratic early in the campaign, they lost only one regular-season game to a 1A opponent (Forks) en route to Evergreen 1A League and District IV championships.

Yet they ranked 47th (out of 63 teams) in the first state 1A listings and improved only to 35th by the end of the regular season. Even after an 81-44 rout of Montesano in January, they still trailed the Bulldogs by two places in the RPI standings.

Since postseason performances weren’t included, Hoquiam’s district title wasn’t factored into its rankings. What hurt the Grizzlies the most, however, was a devastatingly low opponents’ percentage.

Although they failed to match Montesano’s girls in that regard (the Bulldogs faced the top-ranked teams in both the 2A and 1A classifications and lost by only five to eventual state 2A champion Lynden in a holiday tournament), the Grizzlies initially seemed to have assembled a representative non-league schedule.

But Castle Rock and North Beach, both traditionally successful in basketball, combined for a 5-34 record this season. Every loss those teams suffered, plus disappointing performances by other HHS foes, drove another nail in Hoquiam’s RPI coffin.

District championship or not, it’s tough to make a case for Hoquiam meriting a double-elimination regional berth. The Grizzlies lost seven regular-season contests — including one to an Aberdeen team that didn’t even qualify for district 2A competition.

Nevertheless, I’m guessing the Grizzlies would have been favored over more than 25 of the 34 teams ranked ahead of them. Seeded 16th and last among regional qualifiers, they upended ninth-seeded Medical Lake at regionals before dropping a heartbreaker to Newport in a single-elimination state opener.

Their experience demonstrates that changes in the RPI process are necessary. Given the proverbial three wishes, these would be my tweaks.

Tweak No. 1: Alter the RPI ratio.

When the WIAA announced a 50-25-25 percentage ratio, I was among those who assumed that 50 percent of the rankings would be decided by each team’s own record.

Not so. In fact, half of each team’s rankings is determined by its opponents’ record. Therefore, as Hoquiam boys coach Curtis Eccles notes, 75 percent of his team’s RPI ranking was based on factors beyond the Grizzlies’ control.

Based on what he’s hearing from other athletic directors, Montesano athletic director and District IV co-administrator Tim Trimble believes the percentages will be changed in the future.

Taholah’s boys may have been victimized more by the current formula than Hoquiam.

Losers only to top-ranked Neah Bay and No. 7 Chief Kitsap during the regular season (they also owned a win over Neah Bay), the Chitwhins opened the RPI rankings in sixth position. But despite winning a district championship, they fell out of the top eight and into the single-elimination bracket due to the low quality of competition in the Coastal 1B League.

Despite winning district and its regional contest, the Chitwhins wound up drawing Neah Bay again in the single-elimination opening round of state and bowed out with a loss.

Tweak No. 2: Provide some type of credit for a district championship.

The WIAA froze RPI rankings at the close of the regular season largely because of the disparity in district tournaments. Raymond’s girls, for example, played six district contests; Taholah’s boys only two (not counting a forfeit victory).

Although there’s some logic in that stance, district records should count for something.

Eccles was rankled that his district-championship team was relegated to a 16th seed, while La Center — a team the Grizzlies beat in triple overtime in a memorable district semifinal— was seeded into the double-elimination bracket en route to a fourth-place state trophy.

“A third-place (district) finisher has an automatic bid to the state tournament while we had to play another loser-out game,” Eccles argued. “Maybe it’s not an automatic bid to state (for a district champion), but you should include some type of percentage to help your RPI standings.”

Tweak No. 3: Teams from the same league should be excluded from playing each other at regionals.

Two regional contests involving Twin Harbors teams — Taholah vs. Naselle boys and Raymond vs. Ilwaco girls — matched league rivals that had previously met three times.

That pretty much defeats the regional concept. It would be pretty easy to reshuffle the regional pairings without compromising the process.

Other proposals contain some merit but also some potentially negative consequences.

Currently, for example, small-school teams receive no extra credit for playing higher-classification opponents in non-leaguers. Eccles, for one, believes that should change.

“We play larger schools to make our team better,” the Hoquiam coach said. “In the long run, it works for us, but the RPI system doesn’t take into account playing larger schools.”

But Trimble is strongly opposed to such a change and said the vast majority of District IV 1A athletic directors agree with his position. Such a revision, he said, would discourage Class 2A and 3A schools from scheduling 1A opponents.

“I can’t afford Tumwater and Aberdeen saying “no thanks, we don’t want to play you,’ ” the Montesano athletic director said. “I for sure don’t want a bonus for up or down classification play because I’m afraid when the RPI goes to softball, no one will play us.”

Like the majority of coaches, Eccles advocates a return to traditional 16-team modified double-elimination state tournaments for 2A through 1B schools.

The WIAA’s leadership has repeatedly made it clear such a proposal is dead on arrival due to financial considerations. But noting an increase in cross-state travel under the new format, Eccles notes a whiff of hypocrisy in its stance.

“The WIAA may be saving some bucks but the schools are spending a lot more money,” he said. “We traveled six hours to play one (regional) game and then turned around and traveled four hours to play another game.”

Trimble, however, has few objections to the present system.

“I am tending to believe the RPI is way better than anything we have ever had,” he said. “Maybe we can tweak that (50-25-25) percentage better, but I don’t want to see them mess with it too much.”

For examples of how the previous single-elimination regional format failed, Trimble need look no farther than his own building.

The seniors on Montesano’s girls basketball recently completed a four-year stretch in which they compiled a 48-0 record in league play and made the district championship game three times, winning once. Their reward for those remarkable accomplishments was one (1) state tournament game.

An unbeaten, district championship Bulldog team drawing reigning state champion Lynden Christian (due to the vagaries of a combined District I-II-II tournament) in a loser-out regional contest in 2015 remains one of the all-time travesties of the previous format. You have to wonder whether obtaining state experience that year would have enabled Monte to better deal with regional and state pressure the following two seasons.

The RPI system at least allowed the Bulldog girls to gain a taste — more like a nibble — of state competition this year. That in itself indicates that the new format is at least a baby step in the right direction.