Couch: MHSAA basketball tourney seeding debate reaches critical vote

Couch: MHSAA basketball tourney seeding debate reaches critical vote

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Couch: MHSAA basketball tourney seeding debate reaches critical vote

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Everett's Deshae Doll lays the ball in past Saginaw Arthur Hill's Brian Bowen during a Class A state semifinal game in 2015 at Breslin Center.

Everett’s Deshae Doll lays the ball in past Saginaw Arthur Hill’s Brian Bowen during a Class A state semifinal game in 2015 at Breslin Center.

The Michigan High School Athletic Association is closer than ever to seeding its boys and girls state basketball tournaments. Moreover, if the proposal clears the vote of the representative council this May, the tournaments will be seeded using a cutting-edge algorithm.

Coaches have reached an overwhelming majority — through survey and then committee. Even long-time dissenters of seeding have softened, some understanding that this groundswell of logic won’t be quashed this time, while others have been swayed by the strength of the proposal.

“We’re very optimistic, but we know in the past sometimes things haven’t worked out the first time around (presenting to the council),” Williamston girls basketball coach Pete Cool said. “I think it’s inevitable. It think it’s just when. But we’re very optimistic.”

The proposal is to use KPI Sports’ flex seeding plan, run by Michigan State University assistant athletic director Kevin Pauga, formerly MSU’s director of basketball operations. The idea for using KPI — one of six formulas used by the NCAA tournament selection committee — has been in play for a while now. Cool reached out to his friend Pauga after Cool’s Williamston team had to play another highly ranked team, Haslett, in the opening round of the district tournament in 2015.

Such premature matchups occur every year across the state — products of a random draw, rendering the regular season irrelevant, while devaluing sensibility, fairness and competition in high school athletics. I’ve written about this before. I get the arguments against seeding. I just don’t find them to be very compelling. Seeding doesn’t have to be done with KPI Sports. It can be done with coaches in a room, deciding the seeds in districts or regions, like it is in Illinois and Wisconsin. It doesn’t have to be at the regional level, as is the case with this proposal. But KPI is what has the masses excited, in part because it removes the human element.

Here’s KPI in a nutshell, borrowing from an earlier column: It’s a layered and transparent metrics system that quantifies a team’s resume by assigning a value to each game, measuring home and road wins, percentage of total points and quality of opponents within a 25-step process.

“I think we need seeding. But the proposal itself was flawless,” Muskegon coach Keith Guy said.

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Not everyone is on board. Jack Roberts, executive director of the MHSAA, can stomach seeding in some form, but not this proposal. It’s not his call, however. If the representative council — the MHSAA’s governing body — gives it the thumbs up, Roberts will have to go to work to implement it.

“I doubt that it would go into fruition next year, because there would be mechanical things to work out,” Roberts said.

Roberts has logistical concerns and concerns of principle. Getting coaches to report all of their scores is essential to the system. At one point late this season, the MHSAA was missing 400 girls scores and 200 from the boys’ side. But that’s a matter of habit and would likely fix itself over time. It’s a fairly easy mandate, if schools that don’t report scores aren’t included in the postseason. There is also the issue of cost, having Pauga run it, and, Roberts says, for the MHSAA to have some degree of ownership of it.

“I’m sure I sound a little more negative than I actually am,” said Roberts, who’s written a handful of blogs at MHSAA.com on the subject since the beginning of the year. “My No. 1 question is, is seeding postseason basketball going to improve the atmosphere of high school basketball at the 9th-grade, JV and varsity levels? Is it going to help us teach life lessons through basketball? Will seeding lead to fewer problems with travel teams or more? Fewer athletic-related transfers or more of those transfers? Less undue influence or will it lead to more? Will it cause fewer basketball-related scheduling headaches or will it lead to more, like football? Will it lead to more repeat champions or fewer repeat champions? Will it lead coaches to play substitutes later or less? Will it lead to less concern for health and safety? Will it lead to more cheating? Those are the things that I’m concerned about.”

I think I can answer these: Yes. Yes. No difference. No difference. No difference. Unclear; something to keep an eye on. Who cares. Not if done correctly. You’d hope not. Cheaters are gonna cheat.

If fairness is an issue for Roberts, it seems he should be leading the charge for seeding.

“There are a lot schools that have a different view of that,” he said. “(They say), ‘Give me a fresh start.’ ‘I had a lot of injuries earlier in the year.’ Or, ‘Half my team played on the football team.’

“There are all kinds of factors the system doesn’t factor in and why I think there’s some preference to the human element.”

This line of thinking seems overly protective of hard-luck teams and dismissive of those that win. This is, after all, competition. There are lessons to be had from winning and losing, the difference sometimes a result of dedication and organization.

Among Roberts’ primary beefs with using KPI is the margin-of-victory component, which Roberts rightly says can’t be a part of high school sports. Roberts should sit down with Pauga ASAP. I think Pauga could calm his nerves, as he did for many coaches and other administrators. Margin of victory can be removed from the KPI equation, Pauga said.

Pauga is wary of getting involved in the debate. He’s not pushing this. He’s offering it. And what he’s offering has impressed a few folks unexpectedly, including St. Ignace Area Schools superintendent Don Gustafson, who admittedly hasn’t been big on the idea of seeding the basketball postseason. Gustafson is on both the basketball committee — which liked the proposal enough to send it forward — and the representative council, which will consider it and possibly vote on it when it meets May 7 and 8.

“He made a very impressive presentation to the (basketball) committee,” Gustafson said of Pauga. “I felt it had merit to at least be advanced for consideration for the council to look at. That doesn’t mean there aren’t some issues.”

Among them is travel distance for teams. Pauga’s Class A mock bracket last year showed that, in most cases, the average distance increase would be minimal, if at all. The plan has evolved since, further minimizing distance traveled and allowing for more seeding flexibility. Teams will be moved up or down one seed line automatically by the algorithm if the time for travel is over a set distance. The Upper Peninsula, though, is another situation entirely. The KPI system won’t be able to be used the same way there, Gustafson said. He wouldn’t support that effort. Geography has to remain the primary factor in bracketing vast areas.

While Roberts prefers coaches in a room making seeding decisions — perhaps with the help of KPI — the absence of humans is exactly what Gustafson and others prefer about KPI.

“You see personalities get in the way,” Gustafson said. “One of the things I liked about this system is you’re not dealing with personalities here, you’re dealing with an empirical formula.”

Cool agrees. “It takes the biases out of it. Unfortunately, whenever we get in there and debate, use the example of our all-league meetings, if you have someone who can sell their players a little bit better than others, then all of a sudden someone gets a medal and someone doesn’t. That’s a great thing about (KPI) — it’s a computer doing it, so you can’t go back and say, ‘This happened because of that person.’ It’s a computer program.”

Contact Graham Couch gcouch@lsj.com. Follow him on Twitter @Graham_Couch.

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