It's time for Maine to go back to a four-class high school basketball classification system.
An official waits for the resumption of play during a North regional girls basketball tournament game at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor in February 2020. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

One of the things I write about a lot at Maine Basketball Rankings is the importance of maintaining competitive balance in high school sports. It’s an essential part of the job of the adults who oversee this — be it the coaches, athletic directors or the Maine Principals’ Association.

Actually, that’s the association’s primary purpose. There’s a number of factors that go into this, but the first one is making sure teams are playing teams they can beat and the absolute simplest way is to group them by enrollment.

The problem is, there isn’t a lot of correlation between school size and winning, which leads to situations like in Class C tennis, where a team has won 14 straight state titles and is still in Class C. The team could petition up, but some people are happy to play Madden on the rookie level. That’s why we have the Maine Principals’ Association, to ensure a competitive playing field and to create a system where kids at least have a chance.

This has always been a challenge, but it became a bigger one when Maine moved to five classes for high school basketball. Simply put, the state doesn’t have enough schools to justify five classes.

In order to have a properly functioning region, you need at least 12 teams. Any fewer than that and you have teams in the quarterfinals that are not, shall we say, playoff caliber.

Since Maine went to five classes, there have been 50 teams that advanced to the basketball tournament quarterfinals after earning fewer than 25 Heal Points. Twenty-five Heal Points generally means the team went something like 4-14 and has no business being in the playoffs. Twenty-five Heal Points will sometimes get you a preliminary game as the No. 14 seed in Class C. Those 50 teams won a total of two games, and both times they beat a team that only barely cleared the 25-point bar and also shouldn’t have been there. The other 48 teams lost by an average of 29.1 points. Only two of them kept their score differential to single digits.

Where does the size of the region come into this? Of the 50 teams, 49 were in regions that had fewer than 12 teams.

You can also see this in the basketball tournament games. Since Class AA started playing a full quarterfinal round in 2018, the No. 8 seeds in Classes AA and D have gone a combined 0-32, losing by an average of 36.2 points, with only two of those games being competitive.

Compare that to Classes A through C, which have a more robust membership. Those No. 8 seeds are 5-43 and the losses are by an average of 20.8 points. That’s about what you’d want out of a No. 8 seed.

But this isn’t just about one spot in the bracket. It isn’t just a couple of teams that shouldn’t be in the playoffs. Things like this affect the entire tournament.

The No. 2 seed will get a weaker opponent than they should, meaning the odds of an upset fall dramatically, which makes the path of the No. 3 seed harder than it should be. It makes the path of the No. 4 seed harder. Same for the No. 5 and the No. 6. Basically, it’s an extra advantage for the top seeds at the detriment of the rest of the region. Sure, the top seed in Class AA has earned an advantage. But they haven’t earned a glorified scrimmage against a program that regularly struggles against mid-tier Class C programs and should have been relegated.

But they can’t be relegated, because there aren’t enough teams in Class AA.

Should we just scrap the five-class system and go back to four classes? Yes. New York is adding a sixth class, but the state has more than 500 schools. With the loss of Rangeley Lakes, there’s currently 128 boys teams in the state. The math is pretty easy. But the proposal from the Maine Principals’ Association for next season is to do nothing.

Should we also figure out something more elegant than drawing a line in the enrollment sand along the lines of Indiana’s Tournament Success Factor? Also yes.

We have to do something.

Because right now, we have a system that doesn’t work and is getting worse.

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Lucas McNelly, Sports Contributor

Lucas McNelly is a filmmaker, writer, and the basketball data nerd behind MaineBasketballRankings.com. He lives in Damariscotta with his wife and their three kids.