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Saturday, March 2, 2019

I love high school basketball tournaments; let’s have fewer of them

By Allan Classen

I love high school basketball tournament time and have attended at least part of about 40 big school boys tournaments in Oregon. But judging from the declining annual attendance totals since the 1960s, not everyone loves them as much as I do.

They used to be held in Memorial Coliseum, and even its nearly 13,000 seats were not always enough. I learned that the hard way; I was turned away on a sellout night in 1968.

Now the 6A tournament has more than enough room in the Chiles Center, with just under 5,000 seats. Even the final game doesn’t generate the attendance or crowd energy I found so inspiring in the past.

There are many reasons for the declining interest, but one may be the eight-team format for each of six classifications. With as few as 32 teams per classification, making the tournament is not the rare honor it once was. A handful of strong programs make it—and win it—almost every year.

Jesuit won four straight titles from 2009-2012 and then West Linn took its turn with four straight of its own from 2013—16. Jefferson broke the string of “four-peats” in 2017 after moving up from 5A, where the Democrats had won five championships since 2010.

Wilsonville has been in the 5A championship game four straight years. Seaside has been to the final game the past three seasons in 4A. At 3A, Dayton has been there three out of the past four seasons. You get the idea.

Whatever merit the six-classification system has had in the past is diminished by the growing parity across schools of all sizes. Talented players don’t have to transfer to a big school to attract scholarships these days; in fact some of the brightest prospects have transferred to small schools without jeopardizing their future careers.

The smallest Oregon school ever invited to the Les Schwab Invitation Tournament was 2A Columbia Christian, which proved quite capable of swimming with the sharks by splitting four games against the best teams in the state (and country) earlier this season.

School enrollment doesn’t matter that much anymore. Giving teams from all classifications a shot at a true state championship would shake up the predictability and perhaps stir new interest. Everyone is attracted to a Cinderella story.

I lived in Indiana when the tournament was a giant bracket with a line for every team in the state. Legendary underdog stories (and at least one great movie) came out of that system.

We should keep the special traditions of Oregon’s beloved 1A and 2A tournaments. I would suggest that those tournaments continue, with the champions gaining the right to advance in a no-classification tournament. Other states have adopted such systems, I understand.

There are many ways to make tournament play more meaningful. I suggest fewer of them, with each one more likely to be something we haven’t seen before.

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