RUDEN Expanding FCIAC boys basketball tournament to 12 teams a bad idea
The FCIAC likes to pride itself as being the best high school sports conference in Connecticut. And most of the time, its officials can point to a hefty resume backing up the contention.
But behind the scenes right now, a move is gathering momentum that, if enacted, would severely damage the league's reputation, bringing it back to the pack as followers rather than trendsetters while cheapening one of its showcase events.
The 19 boys basketball coaches were recently asked to vote on expanding its postseason tournament from eight to 12 teams. According to Dave Schulz, the committee chairman and athletic director at Fairfield Ludlowe, 15 have voted in favor of the move, two against and two have yet to vote.
In informal polling of nine coaches I have spoken to during the season, there was a 4-4 split, with one having no strong opinion either way.
The principals of league schools would have to give final approval to pass the measure.
There are a litany of reasons why this is a horrible idea. The biggest argument from proponents is it will allow four more teams to get the chance to experience postseason play.
In reality, it would reward four schools that will not deserve to be playing for a championship, riding a societal wave that has been damaging the pursuit of excellence in athletics: compensating teams for their participation rather than their accomplishments.
The idea has been proposed for some time by Stamford coach Jim Moriarty, but the move for possible implementation is being accelerated now due to a state scheduling change that allows schools, besides postponements, to play three games in one week once during the regular season. That has removed what had been a logistical barrier.
Schulz is another backer of expanding the playoff field.
"Everyone's goal is to get to the postseason," Schulz said. "It gives everyone something to play for. Who knows what would happen. You see what happens in the NCAA Tournament."
But the 19 schools already have something to play for, and greasing the slope is going to diminish the achievement of qualifying for the playoffs while unwittingly punishing the schools that have the best records.
While the intentions may be noble, you are going to be allowing teams with sub-.500 records to play for a championship, making this the conference's version of the misguided state rule that allows teams in most sports that win 40 percent of its games into the CIAC Tournament.
While no one is saying so publicly, this move is viewed as essentially sports welfare for suburban schools that have had a difficult time qualifying in the past.
Perhaps the biggest voice of reason in all of this belongs to Carl Charles, the coach of a Ridgefield team that is having one of its best regular seasons but has an unspectacular history.
"This isn't the Big East, it's high school basketball," said Charles, who voted against the move. "What I tell my kids is our job is to become one of the best eight teams. It's an honor to get into the tournament. I don't want to get in just because they have increased it to 12 teams."
Another critic is Trinity Catholic basketball coach Mike Walsh.
"I've always thought the FCIAC has always been the premier league in the state, but expanding the playoffs would reduce it to mediocre," he said. "If you are going to go to 12 schools, why not put everyone in? What's the difference between No. 12 and 16? It makes the whole league season unimportant."
There are several other arguments behind the proposed legislation, each of which can easily be refuted.
"If you don't make the FCIAC Tournament you have to wait 14 or 15 days for the state tournament," Moriarty said. "All of a sudden you have to wait two weeks to play. It's only one more day, and you can get some intriguing 5-12 matchups."
If the season ended today, the fifth seed would be either Staples, McMahon or Stamford, and the 12th seed would be Danbury, which currently has a 4-6 overall record. With all due respect, that game is not putting more than a couple of hundred people at best into the host school's gymnasium.
As for the layoff between the league and state playoffs, going to 12 teams does nothing to reduce the gap. Next season, the earliest the change can be adopted, the regular season is scheduled to end on a Wednesday, the same day the play-in games would be held.
So if the team with the 13th or 14th best records somehow qualified for the state tournament, they would be punished by having to wait two extra days between games.
As for the four teams with the best records that would get first-round byes, the reward is to have to sit five days before their first FCIAC Tournament game. And, as Walsh pointed out, if one of those four teams happens to have its bye on the final day of the regular season, the layoff is even longer.
A strong point can be made that it is more beneficial to be the fifth seed than the fourth, and from a perception standpoint it is never a good situation when it can appear a team has an impetus to lose a game.
So in reality, there is really nothing to be gained, unless you are a fan of putting a gold star on the refrigerator of four more teams just for taking the court, and a lot to be lost, most notably to the league's reputation.
I have no doubt those pushing expansion hold only the best intentions. And the FCIAC basketball coaches have always been noted for their savvy on and off the sideline.
But everyone occasionally makes a mistake. This misguided effort would be one of their biggest ones yet, at great cost to the league's standing.
Hopefully, school principals can save the coaches from themselves. If not, besides a trophy for the champion, the league might as well also buy T-shirts for all the players in the 12-team field.
They would read, "I got to play in the FCIAC Tournament."