My brother was a sophomore on the Varsity roster that had just made it to the State Tournament preparing to play in front of thousands in legendary Rupp Arena. Affectionately referred to as the “Sweet Sixteen” totaling 16 champions from their respective regional tournaments; the state of Kentucky finishes the season with one true champion following the winner-takes-all tournament.

The student sections fill the baseline rows up to the second level of the arena. The lower bowl filled to capacity with neighbors, alums, coaches, and neutral fans. The teams run onto the very same floor where amateurs became pros and coaches raised banners.

Advancing round after round taking down teams to becoming the eventual champions! This impressionable hooper at ten years old witnessed an atmosphere for the first time that would send me home after each game to relive nearly every possession. And as fate would have it my sophomore year in high school I’d be on that very same floor coming out for layup lines to the roar of a crowd that can’t be replicated at that age. There is nothing like the #StateTournament.

That’s where we get our start as coaches. Moments like those instill such a fiery passion for the sport of basketball that we eventually struggle to envision doing anything different to make an impact on the world.

Now our objective is to put our program of inspired student-athletes in a similar position to reignite those gloried moments for previous generations and spark a new for the next. So, how do we take from the structure of the tournament where we coach to enable our athletes to rise to that very challenge.

Kentucky vs Massachusetts

Taking from the only two states to which I have competed – as a player and coach. The state tournaments in Kentucky and Massachusetts are structured differently via qualifications to participate, classifications, and regional formatting. As a coach, it helps to understand how the playoffs are organized to better understand how it could impact the journey to becoming champions.

Kentucky Massachusetts
Eligibility All Postseason Eligible 10 Wins/Top 2 in League
Classifications 2 Classifications 4 Divisions
Regional Format 64 Districts; 16 Regions District Size Vary; 4 Sectionals
Championship Format 16 Team Tournament Final 4

Observations:

  1. The first thing that comes to mind is the qualifications to participate in post-season. Massachusetts has a few qualifications standards to participate in the playoffs compared to Kentucky where every team at the end of the season is eligible for the District Tournament. There is a higher value for early-season victories in Massachusetts because without winning the league or playing .500 basketball there will not be an active February.
  2. Chasing a championship in Kentucky has a couple of wrinkles with the District Tournament set-up: seeding can be randomized and the champions plus runner-up both advance to the regional tournament. Massachusetts is in the midst of its biggest change in 40 years preparing to implement a statewide tournament entrusting a strength of schedule platform by MaxPreps to create a more equitable format. In Kentucky the downside can come with the randomized seedings that occur district to district; Massachusetts faces critique with the confidence of an automated system ranking the top 32 teams.
  3. Two cliches of approval: Less is more and to be the best, beat the best. I am an advocate for less is more when it comes to the number of champions in high-school athletics. Therefore, if we are going to have more classifications in the state of Massachusetts then the changes being made to comprise all the top teams despite their location enhances competition.

For Coaches in Kentucky:

  • Peaking at the right time. With all teams eligible to compete in the postseason the process is pivotal.
  • Postseason preparation starts with the schedule. Depending on the district opponents, if your upcoming team anticipates being in a position to compete at a high level come February it is conducive to schedule strong teams that you may expect to see in playoffs.
  • Find ways to play on bigger stages. It could come from scheduling a tournament that creates a high-intensity atmosphere or playing opponents on college floors. As most regional tournaments compete on college campuses.

For Coaches in Massachusetts:

  • The qualifications to participate in playoffs provide some additional pressure to winning early in the season. And with a statewide structure of fewer than 10 days to opening night, it is certainly challenging for younger teams to handle early-season struggles. The continuity of concepts can shallow the learning curve during the installation phase of preseason, or having to scheme to take advantage of possible lack of preparation (i.e. zone press, run-and-jump, etc.)
  • Scheduling will play a significant role in the future with MaxPreps taking the reigns to seeding the postseason tournament. Teams will look to schedule out-of-league opponents that are comparable in competitive or division level to uphold their ranking per strength of schedule.
  • Part of postseason preparation is familiarity with pressure environments. Similar to Kentucky, most states have championship rounds hosted at professional or college arenas. A lot of early season or end of.

There is nothing like #StateTournaments.  Every championship is formatted a bit differently whether it is from the number of classifications to how teams qualify to compete for playoff positioning. Our objective stays the same as coaches trying to put our program in the best position to be ready for the postseason, but based on the structure of the state athletic associations it can shift how coaches prepare their teams to eventually win on the biggest stages!

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