WPIAL coaches have mixed feelings about open basketball playoffs

Saturday, January 16, 2021 | 6:29 PM

Yes, we’re open.

Derry girls basketball coach Gene Brisbane was coaching the Jeannette boys 37 years ago when the WPIAL opened the playoff door to everybody.

The league held a free-for-all tournament where any team that wanted to compete in the postseason could. At the time, Brisbane wasn’t sure what to think of the concept.

The WPIAL is going to an open playoffs format again this season because of the uncertainty with the covid-19 pandemic — and teams likely to have more or less games played than many of their opponents, including in section.

Higher-seeded teams will get home games through the semifinals, a practice adopted for the football and soccer playoffs in the fall.

Brisbane has a clearer view of the all-encompassing setup now and while he understands why the league is going in this direction, he isn’t sure it is all a good thing.

The number of playoff teams could increase like turnpike tolls.

Some argue there already are too many teams making it past the regular season, including teams without winning records. Normally, the WPIAL takes the top four teams in each section.

None of the six classifications has more than 32 teams.

“I remember teams did decline to be in the playoffs (in 1984),” said Brisbane, who also coached the Hempfield girls for 20 years and had stints with the Hempfield and Greensburg Salem boys. “Open playoffs are like giving everyone a participation trophy. Earning a playoff spot with a winning record is fine, but getting in with a losing record, not so much.”

The WPIAL has not tagged on any stipulations to making the playoffs this year: no games played or minimum wins — something it could have considered, other coaches say. In the regular season, teams can opt out of games over mask regulations, which will not result in a forfeit. That will change in the playoffs, however.

A watered-down field is a concern, although seedings could make for interesting brackets, especially with more potentially even matchups — 16 vs. 17, 15 vs. 18 or 14 vs. 19, for example — in the opening round.

“It’s all about matchups,” Franklin Regional boys coach Steve Scorpion said. “You might draw a bad matchup from your section or something. You might see some crazy upsets.”

Derry boys coach Tom Esposito used to coach Homer-Center in District 6, a much smaller entity than the WPIAL and one that uses an open tournament each year.

Esposito said it was essentially an unwritten rule — a rule that hardened over time — that if you had a sub-.500 record, you did not enter the playoffs. Invitation declined.

Esposito said the key is to keep teams motivated, despite the promise of a postseason looming large.

“It doesn’t mean we’re automatically going,” Esposito said of the WPIAL playoffs. “I mean, if we go 2-10 in section, we don’t deserve to go, right? I just don’t want our guys to go though the motions.”

Teams must notify the WPIAL by Feb. 18 whether they plan to participate in the postseason, which is scheduled to begin Feb. 27.

“It’s the fairest possible thing they could have done this year with the way things are,” Hempfield boys coach Bill Swan said. “It will go fast, too, once it gets going.”

The annual playoff pairings meeting in Green Tree was canceled because of social-distancing guidelines.

Teams are allowed to continue to play games after Feb. 26, another new idea implemented by the league.

“It is a very fair and reasonable response to the volatile nature of this season,” Mt. Pleasant girls coach Scott Giacobbi said. “Teams who started slowly for whatever reason will have a chance to show what they can do when fully healthy and in ‘normal’ circumstances. I also expect that everyone’s game sample size will be different … The format balances that.”

Latrobe boys coach Brad Wetzel likes the idea and thinks the WPIAL should consider doing it more often.

He is particularly fond of teams getting home-court advantage deep into the bracket.

“It’s exciting,” Wetzel said. “The open concept doesn’t impact who has won a respective section. I still believe this must carry weight in the seedings, however, it allows for home games to those teams that have earned it. I don’t think we give up anything by doing this and possibly gain some exciting new possibilities.”

Wetzel said he is not convinced a bye for a section champion is always an advantage. The WPIAL has not said if section champions will be rewarded.

“Playing on your home court against a low-seeded team is almost certainly a well-earned advantage in that you get to keep playing instead of waiting to play a team that has already won a playoff game,” he said. “For teams that hit their stride later in the season or are dealing with some injuries to begin the season, this allows for a potential Cinderella run.”

Giacobbi is glad he isn’t on the WPIAL steering committee, which will be tasked with seeding the potential myriad of teams.

“The open playoff concept takes away a bit of the special, selective nature of the playoff experience,” he said. “Still, I think the positives outweigh the negatives. If we prove relatively competitive, we will enter the playoffs.”

The WPIAL finals are slated for March 12, 13 and 15 at a site or sites to be determined.

Another big change involves the PIAA playoffs. Only WPIAL champions — and champions from other districts — will advance to the state tournament.

“If we stay healthy and stay out of foul trouble we can compete,” Esposito said. “Our kids have worked hard. Even during the pause. I want to see them get rewarded for that.”

Bill Beckner Jr. is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Bill by email at bbeckner@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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