The blind leading the blind draw

Perhaps it’s fitting that it’s Groundhog Day.

I’m sure some version of this column has been written every year by somebody somewhere in the state of Indiana, and none of those previous versions have managed to effect the slightest bit of change.

This one probably won’t either. I’m writing it anyway.

For decades, the Indiana State High School Association (IHSAA) has used a blind draw to set the brackets for its state tournaments. Every team makes the field, and every team has an equal opportunity to draw a sectional bye.

It’s a quaint little tradition and all that, but it’s got to go.

First, the blind draw effectively renders the regular season meaningless. Teams receive no reward whatsoever for performing well over their first 20-plus games. In many cases, they’re punished.

Take a look, for example, at the Class 4A Bedford North Lawrence Sectional in the girls basketball tourney that starts tonight. The three teams with the best records all play first-round games, while 12-12 Jennings County gets a bye into Friday’s semifinals. Great for the Panthers, sure. But fair?

Unbeaten Princeton, the No. 1-ranked team in the final Indiana Basketball Coaches Association poll released Sunday night, also plays tonight, while 9-14 Jasper doesn’t play until the semis of the Princeton Sectional on Friday.

The blind draw is forcing 10 of the top 13 teams in the IBCA poll to play an extra game — and one of the three going straight to the semis (No. 7 Roncalli) avoided the first round by being in a four-team sectional. Only Columbus North and Lawrence North drew the byes that every one of those teams deserved.

Can you imagine the uproar if the NCAA used a blind tournament draw? Picture turning on CBS on Selection Sunday and hearing that North Carolina will face Michigan State in a play-in game, with the winner advancing to face Arkansas-Pine Bluff.

Crazy, right? But that’s pretty much what Indiana’s been doing for years.

Look, I’m all in favor of an open tourney where everybody makes it. As much as I loathe rewarding mediocrity and the everybody-gets-a-trophy generation that we live in now, I do think every school should experience the thrill of playing in a do-or-die state tournament game.

But that’s where the giveaways need to stop.

There are exactly zero logical ways to justify Evansville Reitz, which lost all 24 of its regular-season games, getting a first-round bye while Princeton, the state’s lone perfect team (and home of likely Miss Basketball Jackie Young), does not.

Byes should be earned over the course of the three months of regular-season play, not distributed randomly. This is basketball, not Powerball.

I don’t even really care how it’s seeded. By overall record? Good. By Sagarin ratings? Better. But do something. Even flawed seeds are better than no seeds.

A blind draw is not doing anything to add excitement to the tournament. And it’s not rewarding excellence, either. If the IHSAA was willing to let go of the one-class tournament — a far, far cooler tradition than this one — then it should be willing to drop this, too.

(It also should rethink how it groups teams for sectionals, by the way, but I’m willing to take this one step at a time.)

This is almost inarguably the greatest basketball state in America. It shouldn’t have the country’s most backward tournament setup.

Fixing it wouldn’t take long. Just plant the seeds.

Ryan O’Leary is the sports editor for The Republic. He can be reached at roleary@therepublic.com.