In a three-year period from 2014 to 2016, Sacred Heart dominated the boys basketball landscape at the lower levels of the state tournament.
The Hearts burned through the Class S bracket for state championships in 2014 and 2015 and were barely touched during a Class M state title run in 2016, winning 13 of their 14 contests across the three tournaments by 34.2 points per game.
Even when they were bumped to Class L in 2017, the Hearts cruised to a fourth straight banner, winning by a 15.4 point per game margin.
Not far behind Sacred Heart was Notre Dame-Fairfield, which broke free to runner-up finishes in 2015 and 2016 (Class M) and 2017 (Class L), its victory margin coming at 18 points per game.
The Hearts’ and Lancers’ dominance in the four-class system are just two recent examples of private schools, or schools of choice, tearing through the lower tier of the bracket in March.
Their postseason supremacy was also part of what jump-started the request - demand, really - from public school personnel across the state for a new playoff system that would bring the state two things most coaches wanted, balance and parity.
That’s exactly what area boys basketball coaches believe the CIAC has created with its five-division state tournament, which is in its second year of existence following last year’s trial run.
“I don’t think anyone’s ever gonna be 100 percent in favor of something like this because, obviously, if you’re self-serving you look at your own situations,” Bristol Eastern head coach Bunty Ray said. “But I think if you take a step back and look at the whole scope of high school basketball and where you can fit teams, I thought they did a pretty good job of trying to manage all the different types of situation that are out there.”
Ray is the Lancers’ third-year head coach, but has been on the coaching staff for 16 years. Like many area coaches, he has had first-hand experience in seeing different state tournament systems. This one is his favorite.
“I think this is probably the most fair from what I see,” Ray said. “I think it’s great to see that Division I tournament, and I like that some teams opt into it. I think that’s great, and you get a true champion up in Division I. And like I said, there are some great teams in the other divisions, so when you sprinkle out those teams and move them out of those divisions and let them play each other, it gives other people opportunities. I think it’s a good thing.”
Area coaches did make it clear they believe there are drawbacks to the system, using some variation of the word “imperfect” to describe the five-division format.
“I don’t think there’s a perfect way to do this. I don’t know if there’s a perfect system,” Bristol Central head coach Tim Barrette said. “But I think this balances the field out a little bit. It definitely balanced the field out last year.”
Five of the eight participants in the 2016-17 state championship games in the final four-class system (Trinity Catholic, Sacred Heart, Notre Dame-Fairfield, Hillhouse, East Hartford) were placed into Division I in 2017-18, and those same five remain in that division this year.
Sacred Heart, last season’s state runner-up, won its three games by 9.7 points per game, a drastic difference from the 2014-16 margin and still a big change from its 2017 number (15.4).
Notre Dame-Fairfield, last season’s state champion, won its three games by 13.7 points per game, a more modest change but still a 4.3-point difference.
Yet drawbacks remain. Barrett’s biggest concern is the lookback period. The committee, as is the coaches’ understanding, looks at a three-year lookback window of state tournament success.
“I don’t know if three years is enough. That’s my next question,” Barrette said. “I would maybe recommend five years of success because a lot of times we go through cycles. That’s what happens at a lot of schools. Schools of choice reload, generally, but the public schools are generally very cyclical. You might be down for two, three or four years, and then you go on a run, so what our system currently gives us is if you struggle for three or four years due to a cycle, and then you have a team that’s loaded, you could be in a lower division for multiple years and then just run through it.
“So I guess that’s why the three years is in place because then if you do make a run, that’s one of the three years they’re looking at. That’s one of my main staking points.”
Another concern some coaches addressed was large schools dropping down too many classes due to a lack of success. It can be a problem, some said, when a big school that has struggled over a few years then has a successful season and now has a noticeable upper hand in its bracket.
One of this season’s most notable outliers is in Division IV, where New Canaan resides. The Red Rams are in a division that houses mostly smaller schools despite having the 33rd highest total enrollment in the state (1,319) and 35th highest boys enrollment (679).
The program has seen some down years in recent seasons, including marks of 5-15 and 4-16 the last two campaigns, respectively, in which it would have been in Division III or Class L had it qualified for the state tournament.
But this season, New Canaan went 16-4 in the regular season, earning a No. 4 seed in the postseason.
The team’s schedule was filled with opponents that have some of the highest enrollments in the state. But the Red Rams were placed in a division where they are now a favorite.
“New Canaan went 16-4 playing a LL schedule, and now they’re gonna be in a Division IV tournament, so I don’t see how that’s fair to Division IV schools,” Berlin head coach Mike Veneziano said. “Whether they win or lose I don’t know, but they’ll be more prepared than most schools in their division.”
Veneziano believes the committee did a good job of creating a level playing field, and he agrees there is no perfect way to create the system. But dropping some teams that, based purely on enrollment, would normally be in one of the two highest tournaments is an unfair advantage.
“You can nitpick anything, but my biggest thing is I don’t think LL schools should really be rewarded for not being as competitive with other large schools by playing with Class L and Class M schools,” Veneziano said. “Just doesn’t seem fair to me. I think you could’ve stopped them at the Division II level, and if you kept the LL schools at the Division II level and maybe dropped some smaller schools from Division II to Division III, I think it would’ve been a little more fair once you got below Division I.”
“But overall, I do think it’s a better format,” he added. “Based on how it was before, it was based on enrollment, but the Catholic school multiplier wasn’t as great, so I think it’s better than what it was. I think they’re headed in the right direction, and I think they’ll continue to fix it year to year.”
Zack Carpenter can be reached at (860) 973-1811 or email@example.com