With a high school season unlike any other, we thought it would be a good time to take a look at what a true national high school tournament might look like.
In this fragmented high school season, we still have some state associations that haven’t conducted a sanctioned game, some student-athletes are playing for club teams while they await the fate of their regular high school season, while others have chosen to play on the Grind Session, a loose conglomerate of independent programs built for multiple D1 level recruits on its rosters.
As heightened during COVID-19, states associations have different rules on whom their member programs can play and how much they can play. When they can play is a decision reserved for state health departments and school districts, but the interpretation of those guidelines have gone in a million different directions so far in 2020-21.
What if the state associations got on the same page to create a true national high school tournament (one that mirrored the NCAA Tourney) to crown a true national champion? It may not seem realistic right now, but it isn’t that far-fetched. It would require some cooperation and sacrifices on part of the state associations, plenty of capital, a healthy relationship between associations, schools administrations, coaches and sponsors, and clear communication on the objectives of the national tournament.
High school national champions have been named dating back to 1952 by popular polls, including the FAB 50 National Team Rankings powered by ballislife.com since the 1987-88 season. The only national championships decided on the court have been for now defunct all Black high schools during the days of segregation. Yes, Brown vs. Board of Education came down in 1954, but the Negro National Championships continued until 1967.
If independent, academy-type programs want to create their own tournament away from state associations, we’d be fine with that, too. Many of the same principles below could be followed by that group of teams. If that means an expansion of GEICO Nationals, we’d welcome and support it.
What Has To Happen Before A National HS Tournament
Decide Who Is Eligible
First and foremost, it has to be clear which programs are eligible to enter the national tournament. We would recommend open division state champions get an automatic bid (see below) and would recommend the normal guidelines recommended by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS). That means no programs with post-graduates, age cutoffs (19 before September 1 of senior year) and only programs that are recognized by a high school athletics governing body.
Programs should declare their intent BEFORE the season starts. If a program, school district or league doesn’t want any part of a national tournament, that’s okay. Just make that intent public as early as possible. It won’t be good PR, and won’t be good for the tourney, if a deserving state champion declines on the eve of the tourney’s start. If also prevents a team who is ranked No. 1 in the nation from protecting that ranking and having leverage to back out.
State associations will have to re-think and get with the times, so to speak, on their playoff formats. State associations will need to develop a division (whatever it is called) where the emerging champion is the auto qualifier into the national tournament. We recommend something similar New Jersey’s Tournament of Champions or California’s open division. Teams not quite good enough for the national tournament will still win state championships in other divisions.
In order for this to work, sectional and regional playoff rounds have to be curtailed, so a national tourney begins early enough to be completed before the heart of the spring sports season. That means no more easy opening round playoff games that mainly exist for revenue reasons. No nationally ranked team should be winning its first two playoff games by 30 and 40 points. We see that all the time. The playoff games involving teams vying for a spot in a national tournament should be competitive from the very start.
Many state associations are very cognizant of being inclusive and equitable when it comes to gender. That means a national tournament for girls will need to run concurrent with the boys version. Our hope is that it would continue to popularize the girls game. All 50 states should also be involved. Wait, you say, "no team from Vermont or Montana can possibly win the tournament." Just the experience alone would be well worth it and a Montana team pulling off a first round upset would be huge national news.
How A National HS Tournament Can Be Executed
Make The Format Recognizable
The format wouldn’t be too difficult, and if the tourney committee (see below) would just follow the NCAA tournament, fans would understand how the champion would be crowned. 50 auto bids for the recognized state champion plus the bids for the states that have separate associations for public and privates. The rest of the 64-team field would be reserved for deserving independent teams and/or those that stumbled in their respective state tournament. We think the latter may be a rare occasion, as there will be plenty of independent teams that would confide by the rules in order to be eligible. Like the old March Madness, teams would be confined to their respective region (four regions to create a Final Four) in order to cut down on travel costs and create rivalries.
Create A Competent Tournament Committee
This committee should include a mix of people representing the media, national scouts, state associations, referees, sponsors, security, public relations officials, and a treasury to ensure the public’s faith in the event’s financial component. The group would have to decide whom or what group would be most suitable to seed each of the four regions.
Have Reasonable Expectations
As with any event, it would have hiccups and things that need improvement over time. And with those tweaks it would grow in popularity over time, no different from GIECO Nationals or any other now popular basketball tournament. Everybody involved would have to be on board that the event is a long-term deal and not a money-maker for all those involved in its execution.
Share The Wealth
There is a popular term in basketball “share the sugar” that implies unselfish basketball is critical to success. The same would apply here. Like anything else, greed would ruin a national tournament. Small states would have to feel just as involved and important as power states. State associations would feel their best interests would have to be served in order to back an initiative like this and allow their teams to play. Broadcast rights and streaming rights would have to include local distribution for the early rounds and be beneficial to the schools, not necessarily just the state associations. With out progressive thinking, this dream scenario for high school basketball wouldn’t work.