Mark Story: KHSAA to decide soon whether to make Sunday Sweet Sixteen finals a regular thing

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistApril 6, 2013 

Madison Central celebrated with its trophy after winning the state title on Sunday, March 10.

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If things go as KHSAA Commissioner Julian Tackett hopes, we will find out soon if the championship games of future Kentucky high school basketball state tournaments will be regularly played on Sundays.

On April 15, the Kentucky High School Athletics Association Board of Control will meet and Tackett hopes a decision will be made that day on the future of Sunday state title games for both the boys' and girls' Sweet Sixteens.

Under the historical format of Kentucky's one-class, 16-team basketball state tournaments, the state semifinals have been played on Saturday mornings with the championship games later the same night.

In the just-concluded boys' state tourney, scheduling conflicts in Rupp Arena led to the state semifinals being played on Saturday night and the state championship game being held on Sunday afternoon.

Tackett said the switch in tournament formats for this year's boys' tourney produced boffo results. "We were very, very pleased," he said. "It could not have gone much better."

The problem with the traditional Sweet Sixteen format is that playing the state semifinals on the morning of the state championship causes the final four round to be all but completely eclipsed.

This year, the Sweet Sixteen's first-ever Saturday night semifinals drew a huge crowd of 20,172 in Rupp Arena to see Madison Central-Hopkinsville and Ballard-Montgomery County.

"It unhinged the semifinals from the finals," Tackett said. "To have four teams in Rupp Arena on Saturday night instead of two, it produced an even bigger 'event' feeling. They were great games, and they got a chance to stand on their own. I thought it was really good."

With the state finals moving to Sunday and adding another day to a state tourney that starts on Wednesday, some wondered how championship-game attendance would fare.

The 2013 state finals drew 17,351 to see Madison Central's epic comeback victory over Ballard. It was the largest championship-game crowd since 2009.

Of course, some of the factors that reinvigorated the boys' Sweet Sixteen this year had nothing to do with the Sunday finals.

A big part of this year's success was that Madison Central and Montgomery County, two schools that have massive fan bases, made it all the way to the season's final Saturday.

Another factor that seemed to make the 2013 boys' Sweet Sixteen more appealing for many was that it was played much earlier in March than normal.

In most years, the boys' state tourney is played concurrently with the first week of the NCAA Tournament. This year, with Rupp Arena playing host to the NCAA tourney rounds of 64 and 32, the KHSAA moved the boys' Sweet Sixteen forward two weeks.

"There was a quirk in the calendar that meant we could play a normal 12-week (high school basketball) season and still have the (boys' state) tournament early," Tackett said. "We always try to keep the boys (Sweet Sixteen) off the (week of the men's) SEC Tournament because, our history shows, that conflict hurts our crowds."

A permanent move of the boys' Sweet Sixteen to the first full week of March would be difficult to pull off, Tackett said.

"Our (basketball) season runs 12 weeks, starting (for schools that play football) on the Monday after Thanksgiving," he said. "In most years, there's no way to play a 12-week season starting the week after Thanksgiving and finishing the first week in March."

Going forward, Tackett says the boys' and girls' state tourneys will both use the same format. This year, the girls' Sweet Sixteen featured the traditional Saturday semifinals and finals.

According to the KHSAA's research, boys' teams that begin the four-game Sweet Sixteen trek with a Thursday first-round game have not historically been disadvantaged by playing so many games in so little time, Tackett said.

"That hasn't necessarily been true of the girls' tournament history," Tackett said. "So a Sunday finals might help balance that out."

If the KHSAA Board of Control approves a move to Sunday finals, Tackett said he would like for that format to apply at least through the 2018 season, the last year of the current contract to hold the boys' Sweet Sixteen in Rupp Arena.

"That would give us some time to fairly evaluate it," he said.

If they try it through 2018, my guess is the KHSAA will find the same thing it found this year: Playing Sunday finals makes a wonderful event even better.

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230 Email: mstory@herald-leader.com Twitter: @markcstory Blog: markstory.bloginky.com

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