MCCULLERS COLUMN: A defense of the regular season

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It’s tournament time again in Montana.

In other words, time for high drama, heroic performances, unforgettable moments and sheer craziness.

But as exciting and unpredictable as postseason basketball tournaments inevitably are, I can’t help but think they matter a bit too much.

Sure, a bracket of some sort is the one and only legitimate way to decide a champion in any sport at any level. (You’d think this would go without saying, but it took college football more than three-quarters of a century to figure it out.)

At a certain point, however, the power of the tournament — or tournaments, in Montana’s case — can become so great that the regular season, a much more reliable indicator of a team’s talent and fortitude, is no longer of any value.

Consider the position the Helena High girls find themselves in as Western AA divisional tournament play begins today.

The Bengals put together an admirable resume during the regular season. They earned the best overall record of any Western AA team at 16-2 and tied with Missoula Sentinel for the best conference mark at 10-2.

Their reward for the effort? Absolutely nothing.

Sentinel took the tournament’s No. 1 seed — and the first-round bye that accompanies it — because it swept Helena Capital, the No. 3 team in the conference, while Helena merely split with the Bruins. Because the top seed is the only one to receive a first-round bye, Helena remains two wins away from a spot in the state tournament — just like the 3-15 Missoula Hellgate team it will face in the first round.

The Class AA divisional tournaments, reinstated this year after a 25-plus-year hiatus, was certainly brought back with the best of intentions.

Glacier boys coach Mark Harkins was among the contingent of Class AA coaches who lobbied for it. He did so for two reasons.

First, to rid the postseason of the one-off play-in games that determined who went to state in years past. That’s perfectly reasonable, given how one bad night for a higher seed could send an inferior team to the state tournament under the previous system.

Second, Harkins and other coaches argued a divisional tournament would give every player a chance to experience tournament play. Another fine sentiment, one I agree with.

Unfortunately, the new system does little to incentivize regular-season success.

There is a way, however, to ensure the coaches’ priorities are addressed while also rewarding teams that overcome the adversity accompanying the long, slow, painful grind of a season.

Give the top three seeds in both conferences an automatic berth in the state tournament. Allow the other four teams in each conference to duke it out for the final spot at state in a reduced divisional tourney.

Postseason tournaments are often some of the most entertaining events of the year. Under the current system, however, the weight they carry makes the regular season all but irrelevant.

And that is no fun at all.

Evan McCullers is a sports reporter and columnist for the Daily Inter Lake. He can be contacted by phone at (406) 758-4463 or by email at emccullers@dailyinterlake.com.

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