Chris Dugan's Sports Column

Time to trim the WPIAL playoffs

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Fourteen, 17, 20, 21, 25, 26, 27.


What are those numbers?


No, they aren’t your golf handicap over the last seven years or the numbers for somebody’s shiny new combination lock.


Those numbers are point totals several overmatched teams produced during the WPIAL basketball playoffs that began Friday night.


No, not first-quarter points. Or points scored in a half. Those are final scores, produced over 32 minutes of bad basketball.


That’s what happens when you include too many teams – too many non-playoff quality teams – in the postseason.


One Class AAAA boys team last weekend scored 11 points in the first half. A Class AA girls team had two points at halftime and didn’t reach double figures until well into the fourth quarter. Another Class AA girls game had a halftime score of 11-9 (hey, at least it was a close game). A Class A girls team trailed 25-0 before the first quarter ended.


Yes, WPIAL basketball playoff action. Feel the excitement.


Yawn!


The problem is the WPIAL’s playoff format. It used to mean something to make the playoffs. You had to win your section title to qualify, which put only the elite teams in the postseason. Then the format was changed to allow the top two teams in each section to qualify, which wasn’t a bad idea. Now, it’s the top four finishers in each section, including teams that tie for fourth place. That’s how Monessen’s girls team made the playoffs this year with an underwhelming 4-16 record.


The Class AA boys playoff field this year includes 24 teams out of a possible 43. The entire Class A boys regular season was played to eliminate all of eight teams. Having so many playoff teams simply weakens the importance of regular-season games.


Thirteen boys teams made the playoffs this year with losing records. Eleven girls teams had losing records.


Fourth-place teams, especially in sections that include only six teams, simply are not worthy of being included in the playoffs. And teams that can’t break the .500 mark in the regular season shouldn’t be in the postseason.


The powers-that-be at the WPIAL are quick to say the bloated playoffs allow more kids to participate in postseason games. But do you really think the players on Mapletown’s boys team, which finished in fourth place in Section 3-A with a 7-12 record, were excited about playing top-seeded Lincoln Park (22-1), a charter school that has several players drawing NCAA Division I interest? Mapletown had no chance of winning and proved as much. Lincoln Park won, 84-27. The Leopards led 26-0 after one quarter.


Did I mention that Lincoln Park-Mapletown was a rematch of last year’s first round, when Mapletown, again a fourth-place finisher in its section, lost a 95-37 nail-biter in a game that wasn’t decided until about 10 seconds after the opening tip-off?


And the WPIAL charges full price for a ticket to these early round “playoff games.” In Class A boys, the average margin of victory in the first round was a tension-filled 32.2 points.


Let’s call what including fourth-place finishers in the playoffs really is – a money grab. More playoff teams mean more games, which produces more revenue for the WPIAL.


In this case, more is not better. It only means more blowouts.


• The NHL is in the midst of a three-week shutdown so its players can help kill whatever is left of the Olympic ideal.


Having NHL players in the Socchi Games might produce the best international hockey tournament possible, but what does a professional sports league gain by going on hiatus when the regular season is just getting interesting? Can you imagine the NFL shutting down its regular season for three weeks so its players can participate in, for example, a flag-football tournament in Italy?


For the NHL, the risk/reward doesn’t warrant the participation. If one Olympian suffers a long-term injury, then it could ruin an NHL team’s playoff chances. But, hey, you’ll still have your national pride, right?


One team of NHL players will beat another team of NHL players for the gold medal next weekend. That can’t be good for the Olympics and it’s not good for the NHL, either.


No matter how exciting the gold medal game is, it will fall short of the United States’ 1980 “Miracle on Ice” Olympic team’s wins over the Soviet Union and Finland in 1980.


What made that 1980 team so compelling and memorable is that its players were the giant-killers. They were a bunch of college kids, several of whom were not wanted by the NHL – captain Mike Eruzione played in as many NHL games as your neighbor – and they beat a Soviet Union team stocked with players who were considered the caliber of an NHL all-star squad. Sprinkle in the tensions of the cold war, and you get a story that attracted the attention of a nation.


You can’t repeat that kind of storyline in this Olympics. There are no Eruziones or Jim Craigs in Socchi, just a few games that will look a lot like last year’s NHL all-star game.



Sports editor Chris Dugan can be reached at dugan@observer-reporter.com.


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