Mark Story: Sunday finals should make Sweet Sixteen better

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMarch 4, 2013 

KHSAA Boys Sweet 16

Shelby Valley coach Jason Booher gave MVP Elisha Justice (#3) a hug after Shelby Valley defeated Ballard at the PNC KHSAA Boys Sweet 16 Championship game, 73-61 at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky. Saturday March 20, 2010 Photo by Joseph Rey Au


Remember Adam Wing drilling 5-of-5 three-point attempts to lead Rowan County past Bullitt East in the 2011 Kentucky high school state tournament semifinals? Or Elisha Justice's 31 point-performance to carry Shelby Valley past Mason County in the 2010 semifinals?

What about defending state champ Mason County needing every one of Chris Lofton's 23 points to survive a gutty performance by Tyler Hicks (22 points) and Scott County in the 2004 semis?

Unless you are from one of the involved schools, there is a very good chance that you don't recall what should have been prime-time Kentucky basketball moments.

The reason you aren't apt to remember is because the traditional Sweet Sixteen format of playing the state semifinals and championship game both on Saturday causes the semis to be completely overshadowed.

This year, that will change.

In the 96th renewal of Kentucky's one-class basketball championship, we will finally get to see the state semifinals and finals played on separate days. Rupp Arena scheduling conflicts have led the Kentucky High School Athletics Association to schedule the 2013 state semifinals for Saturday night (7:30 and 9 p.m.) and the championship game Sunday afternoon (2 p.m.) in Rupp.

"It's a change that people have talked about for a long time," KHSAA Commissioner Julian Tackett said. "This year, because of some scheduling factors in Rupp, it made it necessary for us to try it."

I am among those who have long thought this was a change that needed to happen.

In the NCAA Tournament, Saturday's national semifinals are the focus of the entire tourney without detracting from the significance of Monday's championship game.

Conversely, in the Kentucky high school state tourney, having the semifinals and finals on the same day has always led to the final four being mostly overlooked.

"If you look historically, some of the great games in Kentucky high school history have occurred in our semifinals," Tackett said. "But, to use the newspaper term, they end up as Page 8 news because it's the championship game on Page 1."

Coaches' views mixed

What necessitated this year's Sweet Sixteen format switch were conflicts in Rupp Arena with men's college basketball. Lexington is serving as host of the NCAA Tournament rounds of 64 (March 21) and 32 (March 23rd) on the week that the state tourney would have otherwise been in Rupp, Tackett said.

Once the KHSAA had to move its tournament forward by two weeks (without shortening the length of its season), there eventually became a conflict with the University of Kentucky's men's hoops season finale with Florida. (That game will be played in Rupp at noon on Saturday with the state tourney semifinals that night).

A poll on playing a Sunday final of three coaches who have won Kentucky high school state championships in recent years yielded mixed opinions.

Pulaski Southwestern Coach Steve Wright, who led South Laurel to the 2005 state title, is adamantly against.

"I don't like it at all. I'm a traditionalist, and I guess my view is, if it ain't broke, don't fix it," Wright said. "I've always felt that the four games in four days, maybe four games in 48 hours depending on the draw, is sort of the true test of a champion."

Ex-Warren Central coach Tim Riley, whose Dragons won the 2004 state crown and were runners-up in '05, is mostly against the switch, but does see the public-relations benefit.

"Right now, I kind of like the tradition," Riley said. "But I do see where the semifinals themselves should get a lot more publicity (with the switch)."

Jason Booher, who coached Shelby Valley to the 2010 state title and has led Covington Holmes into the 2013 tourney, is enthusiastic about a Sunday finals. He points to his experience leading Shelby Valley to two All 'A' Classic titles. The All 'A,' a statewide tourney for small high schools, has long played its semis on Saturday and finals on Sunday afternoon.

"It actually puts some coaching back into the finals," Booher said of playing on Sunday. "It gives a coach time to put together a game plan."

Limited economic impact

When it became apparent that the 2013 boys Sweet Sixteen would play a Sunday afternoon finals, Tackett said the KHSAA had one multi-layered requirement.

"We wanted a start time that would allow people to attend a morning worship service if they desired," Tackett said, "but also (one) that was early enough that people from any part of Kentucky could attend the game and then drive home without getting back so late that it would cause them to miss school the next day."

That's how 2 p.m. was chosen.

Terry Johnson, Executive Director of the Bluegrass Sports Commission, said he does not think the switch will have a significant economic impact for Lexington area businesses.

"I think most people from out of town who come to the state tournament, many of them already stay over till Sunday anyway," Johnson said. "At the most, there might be an extra meal (sold)."

Whether the Sunday finals is a one-year change or a permanent move will depend on how this year goes, Tackett said. As of last week, advanced ticket sales for the Sweet Sixteen were down slightly, Tackett said. "But I don't think because of Sunday," he said.

The KHSAA will monitor how attendance is affected at both the semifinals and finals, as well as factors such as whether the extra day for the tournament raises the costs associated with holding the event, Tackett said.

The decision on staying with the Sunday finals "will be a business decision," Tackett said.

In 2013, the boys Sweet Sixteen will serve as a grand experiment on whether Kentucky's best sporting event (my opinion) can be made even better.

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230. Email: Twitter: @markcstory. Blog:

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