As the 2010-2011 regular season ended, the Homewood and Mountain Brook boys’ basketball teams both looked to have a pretty good shot at reaching the Class 6A Final Four – and just maybe winning the big blue state championship trophy in March.
Unfortunately for the Patriots and Spartans, their seasons not only didn’t stretch into March but didn’t even make it to Valentine’s Day. Homewood and Mountain Brook both lost in the first round of the Area 12 Tournament and saw their impressive overall records go down the proverbial drain.
Not that either team had any reason to be ashamed. The Patriots, Area 12’s regular season champion, fell to archrival Vestavia Hills 60-53, in a game that showed once again why the Rebels’ George Hatchett is among the state’s best coaches in post-season play.
The Spartans lost to Spain Park – which has been one of Metro Birmingham’s hottest teams in recent weeks. The Jaguars had defeated Mountain Brook twice earlier in the season.
But the fact that quality teams like Homewood and Mountain Brook were one and done in the playoffs is a bone of contention for many coaches who dislike the Alabama High School Athletic Association’s present format for basketball.
Under the present rules, a team winning the first game in its four-school area tournament is guaranteed a spot in the sub-regional. The area championship game merely determines the sub-regional bracket in which each team will compete.
So it’s completely possible that a team could go undefeated in the regular season, have one bad game and lose in the first round of the area tournament, and be finished for the year.
In Class 5A, the Briarwood boys had a similar problem as Homewood and Mountain Brook. Despite being heavily favored in their Area 7 Tournament first-round game against Chelsea, the Lions were stunned 51-47 by the Hornets. Briarwood had beaten Chelsea twice in the regular season but couldn’t hold off the Hornets when it really counted.
The Lions, with a final record of 21-10, saw a fine season end with a bitter aftertaste.
There was an upside to the potentially dangerous first rounds for some area schools. Hoover earned its 24th victory of the season with a solid win over a good Oak Mountain team in the Class 6A Area 10 opener. The season ended sadly for the Bucs, however, when they were defeated in the sub-regional by the same Vestavia squad that bumped off Homewood.
And John Carroll Catholic, directed by veteran coach Larry Harbin – who has more wins than any active coach in Jefferson County – turned heads by eliminating Parker in the Class 5A Area 9 opening round.
In girls’ play, local area tournaments went more according to form. Vestavia upset Mountain Brook for the Area 12 title, but since both schools won their first round tournament games, they each advanced to the sub-regional, where the Lady Spartans had the bad luck to draw top-ranked Hoover.
The all-importance of the opening games of area tournaments has drawn the ire of many coaches.
“Some coaches would like to see the regular season area champion be grandfathered into the sub-regionals,” said Vestavia’s Hatchett. “And I can understand that from one perspective.
“But basketball is a tournament sport that’s all about second chances. One of the great things about the NCAA tournament is when a small school like George Mason makes a strong run. Everybody loves an underdog.”
You can’t blame Hatchett for liking the present format. Two years ago, his Rebel team ended the regular season with a long losing streak before catching fire in February to win Vestavia’s second Class 6A basketball state championship.
This season, the Rebels ended the regular season with an 11-16 record before stunning Homewood in Area 12. Last weekend’s win over Hoover sent Vestavia to the Northeast Regionals.
I see both sides. The present AHSAA format basically renders the regular season meaningless, which is a problem. On the other hand, the high school basketball post-season in Alabama seems to get bigger and better every year, and there’s no doubt that the possibility of early round upsets spice it up. With all due respect to the highly rated teams who lose early, the system doesn’t seem broken, so why fix it?
But that’s easy for me to say. If you’re Homewood or Mountain Brook, with 23 wins and nothing to show for it except for a ticket home, the present format is a little tougher to swallow.