On Saturday afternoon, the Urban Blues won their second North Coast Section (NCS) Division 5 Championship in a row, overcoming an early 15-point deficit to beat Head-Royce.
Their reward? The 14th seed in the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) Division III bracket and a trip to face third-seeded Oakland Tech on Tuesday night to kick off the Northern California playoffs.
Head-Royce, on the other hand, is the top seed in Division IV. The Jayhawks host No. 16 Enterprise-Redding on Tuesday and would have home-court advantage throughout the entire Northern California playoffs.
“It seems odd that losing the NCS Championship Game would be so advantageous with making a regard to a State Championship run,” Blues head coach Joe Skiffer said. “With that said, I’m unsurprised.”
It’s all part of the CIF’s “competitive equity” model, which has been in use since the 2018 playoffs. Rather than place teams into the same divisions they use for their section playoffs, which are largely based on enrollment, the state brackets are ordered by perceived strength. The top teams are in the Open Division, the next best in Division I, and so on through Division V. Division VI, for the smallest schools of all, only exists within Northern California.
“I’m unsure what the answers to competitive equity are,” Skiffer said. “I do feel strongly that section winners that move up divisions should get to at least host the first round.”
While the Blues emerged from Saturday’s game with a banner, which they won in front of a spirited home crowd at Kezar Pavilion, they’ll have to hit the road on Tuesday to face a team led by star guard Ahmaree Muhammad and power forward Omar Staples, a Stanford football commit. If they lose, their season is over. The Jayhawks, meanwhile, will host the 404th-ranked team in the state. While Head-Royce won’t get to hang an NCS Championship banner, the odds of winning a state title, with the top seed in a weaker division, are far higher.
The system was introduced to create competitive games across all rounds of the tournament, which it largely does. But the lack of rewards for winning a section title is a major flaw. In Divisions I through V, only one of the top seeds in the Northern brackets, Division II Clayton Valley, is a section champion.
The Ugly Eagles, in theory, were seeded as the 22nd-best team in Northern California, behind the five Open Division teams and the 16 in Division I. However, MaxPreps’ formula ranks them as the 33rd-best team in the entire state, and the 13th in Northern California. The computer rankings aren’t the be-all and end-all, but Clayton Valley is even 14 spots ahead of St. Joseph-Santa Maria, the fifth and final team selected to the Open Division in Northern California (the absurdity of a team from Santa Maria being considered part of “Northern” California is a different argument entirely).
St. Ignatius, the lowest Northern California seed in Division I, is ranked 130th in the state by those same rankings. The Wildcats, who went 1-2 in the CCS Open Division, including a fourth loss to rival Serra, didn’t seem to get the easier road for losing that many of their counterparts were granted. Four spots ahead of SI in the state rankings is Pinole Valley, the NCS Division 3 runner-up. The Spartans have the fifth seed in the Northern California Division III bracket.
While Clayton Valley seemingly wasn’t punished for winning, the same can’t be said across the board. The St. Mary’s-Stockton girls are the top seed in Division I. Had they won their Sac-Joaquin Section (SJS) championship game against Folsom, they could have been included in the Open Division. Folsom did make the Open Division as the fourth seed. If the Bulldogs beat Salesian on Wednesday, they’ll have to travel on Saturday to face Piedmont, the top girls team in all of Northern California.
The girls at Mills find themselves in a similar predicament. They beat Santa Cruz on Saturday to win the Central Coast Section (CCS) Division III Championship, the program’s first since 1985. The Vikings are the 14th seed in Division IV and have to travel to Tracy to face Kimball. The Cardinals, on the other hand, have the second seed in Division V.
“It’s interesting for sure,” Mills co-head coach Justin Matsu said. “Not sure of the process in which they rank teams for this, but it almost feels like the teams that lose get awarded with better seeding. I wish we would just go back to how it was when I played at Serra, where you had enrollment-based divisions.”
"You could look at it two different ways," said CIF Associate Executive Director Brian Seymour. You could see that the team that won was given a lower seed, or you could look at it as the team that won earned the right to play against better teams in a higher division."
Sending the best of the best to the Open Division and then splitting the rest of the field up based on school size, like the CCS does, has its own set of imperfections. Different sections have different enrollment cutoffs. When Matsu’s Serra team won the Division II State Championship in 2016, his junior year, it was against Long Beach Poly, a school of 4,000 kids, or roughly 2,000 boys. Serra has 860. A year later, Mission became the first San Francisco public school to win a state title in program history, doing so against Villa Park (Orange County). Mission’s enrollment sits around 1,000; Villa Park’s is near 2,200.
Then there’s the matter of Division V, which used to be reserved for schools with fewer than 500 students. University made the Division V State Championship Game in 2015, and lost by 25 to Sierra Canyon. That Sierra Canyon team was led by Remy Martin, who went on to play at Arizona State and Kansas, future UCLA star Cody Riley and Adam Seiko, who now plays for San Diego State.
University opened that Division V run against Trinity, a school of 350. The Wolves made the trip from Weaverville, a town of under 4,000, and lost to the Red Devils by 40.
The current system is hardly better for small public schools. Mount Shasta, with less than 300 students, won the Northern California Division V title in 2019. The entire student body descended on the Golden 1 Center for the state title game, where the Bears lost to Foothill-Bakersfield, a school with nearly 2,000 students enrolled.
"When you have ten sections that run their own sections with their own type of variations, you're gonna get some anomalies," Seymour said. "This current system is always evolving, and we need to respect how sections conduct their championships."
Governing California is undoubtedly hard, whether it’s managing the state’s water supply or trying to create the best possible system to determine a state basketball champion. While the state’s North-South divide and its diversity makes California such a fascinating place, it also provides a unique set of obstacles that manifest themselves in countless ways, including for those tasked with setting up the state’s basketball championships.
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