I’ll answer my own question in the headline, probably not. So why weigh in on this subject if nothing would have been different you probably are asking yourself and my answer is if you’ll hang in there with me for a few more paragraphs I will explain why I am asking this question as we take a bigger look at what happened Tuesday night.
Let’s start at the beginning, the RPI system for those who are not aware is a new ranking system the WIAA began this season. The goal is to get a more fair pairing of teams as they enter the State Basketball Tournament. When the final 16 teams have qualified for the tournament through their District Tournaments the RPI system will rank them 1-16. Teams 1-8 will play each other and 9-16. The winners of the 1-8 will earn a bye in the 1st round of the State Tournament with the losing teams having to play the winners of the 9-16 games. The 4 losing teams of the 9-16 contests will have their season’s come to an end. The winners of the 9-16 games will face the losers of the 1-8 games on Wednesday of the State Tournament in a loser out contest. The Tourney will then be cut down to 8 teams and guaranteed at least 2 more games.
This shows how important it is to be in the top 8 for a chance at the bye and even if you lose at Regionals you’re season is still not over. This brings us to Tuesday night, The Capital Cougars came in with an 11-1 league record and 16-2 overall. They had clinched at least a share of the South Sound Conference’s League Title but more importantly had wrapped up the #1 seed into the District Tournament. They had North Thurston and Gig Harbor left on their schedule but in reality those games mean absolutely nothing to the final standings other than a possibility of having to share the league title or the fact the Cougars had the #1 seed wrapped up.
In our pre-game conversation with Capital Coach Brian Vandiver we asked if he would pull starters or play them sparingly since the outcome of this game really had zero impact on their seed into the District Tournament. His answer was a quick no, he can’t let up because they were #5 in the RPI and although nothing is guaranteed he couldn’t risk losing a game they might win because of being careful with his players. So despite knowing the win would do nothing for the Cougars as far as District seeding he had to take that into consideration.
The only change Coach Vandiver made was he started all 5 Seniors because it was senior night but the 2 seniors that don’t normally start both had started or played quite a bit this season. Now also to be fair Coach Vandiver said that a win would give them sole possession of the league title and his team has been the work of 2 years of turning around a program. He said his guys need to keep pressing and to keep focused, they don’t have much post-season experience to fall back on when the games really count. So would TJ Mickelson, the Cougars 2nd leading scorer and floor general been on the bench in a tight game with 1:14 left to play when the incident happened? Again, likely not.
For those who did not hear what happened with 1:14 left to play in the game, TJ went up for a potential rebound as a
North Thurston player laid up a shot and as the 2 players crossed TJ’s feet got hit while he was in the air and drove him into the floor where he broke his collarbone and slammed his head on the floor knocking him out and suffered a major concussion. He laid motionless for most of the 25 minutes he was on the floor as paramedics were called to take him to the hospital. He was released which was the good news but his season is over. His team now will be missing his 13 points per game with the capability to go off for 39 like he did last week setting the 3-point shot school record with 10. His leadership, defense and ball handling all gone in the blink of an eye.
This all happened in a game that last year would have meant absolutely nothing to the Capital Cougars other than pride. Without the RPI hanging over Coach Vandiver’s head would he had made the same decision? Would there had been a different path? We can’t say for sure but at the minimum he should have the ability to make the choice.
There will be arguments that it’s important that every game have some kind of meaning behind it. You don’t want teams resting players because their opponent may need the game and if they don’t get a stiff challenge another team’s destiny could be changed. I say too bad if you are in a position that you need another team to win for you then that’s your own fault and I want all the tools in my tool bag at my disposal to make sure my team has it’s best chance at achieving our goals.
You may be thinking well this is so rare in basketball that this isn’t worth discussing. I would say first that yes serious injuries like this do not occur on a regular basis on the basketball floor but if you have a starting player who has been banged up and has a turned ankle do you really want to make it worse by having to play that player in a game that means nothing to you. Remember the RPI has nothing to do with getting in or any seeding in the District Tournaments. Those processes are up to the leagues and districts and the WIAA’s RPI has zero impact on Districts.
The other issue is where we look at the bigger picture. There is talk of using the RPI system in other sports like football. So let’s think about what happened with TJ on a team sitting with the 5th best RPI playing a game that has no other value. Will a football coach now play athletes who would definitely benefit from missing a game or at least reduced playing time? If you have a Quarterback that is banged up and you know if you don’t have him your season is in big trouble but you don’t want take a loss because you’re sitting at the 8th position of the RPI and a loss no doubt would drop you, do you play him or not? Under the current RPI system the answer likely is yes play him and hope he makes it out ok.
Or how about teams that have to play a non-league game at the end of the year due to the number of teams in their league, should that non-league game now be a must win game? It forces a team in that scenario to actually have to play more games that count than others. In fact whenever a team has a non-league game and they have players that would be labeled in NFL terms as questionable do you play those players even though its a non-league game and you believe your team has a shot at the top 8?
That’s the issue right there. A game that has no impact on league standings, no impact on what seed you will get into Districts or a crossover now is a must win due to the RPI. This seems to fly in the face of athlete safety. There isn’t an athlete who wouldn’t want to play and certainly would not want to be the reason for dropping in the RPI because the coach decided, like an adult, that his players safety and well being was more important than playing in an otherwise meaningless game.
Let me be clear, there is and always will be meaningless games to teams during a season no matter how much everyone wants every game to be the most important game ever played. The coach should have at least the choice, whether its giving his starters a break or whether or not there are true health issues to take into consideration. But by artificially making a meaningless game meaningful takes that option away from coaches.
This is not meant to be a story trying to find a reason for why something terrible happened, trying to find a scapegoat as I wrote earlier there was a much bigger chance that TJ would have been in the game at that point in time than not regardless of the RPI system. But as the WIAA moves forward with the RPI system you are going to have issues pop up that maybe didn’t fit on the piece of paper that makes a system look so good.
Is there a solution to this particular issue, maybe, maybe not but I believe it is worth the discussion and let the WIAA members give some thought to this what I would call a potential unintended consequence. My thought is once a team like Capital reached the point they did where they had their league title and #1 seed secured that they could freeze their RPI at that stage and not allow any additional games count against them since they have no reason to win them other than pride and the RPI. Now if a team was sitting at 9 in the RPI they would likely want the game to count to try and move up. Or another thought like many polls, throw out the top and bottom results and take the RPI with the middle to try and eliminate freakish results one way or the other. Or allow Football teams to drop one game from their 9-regular season schedule and basketball maybe gets to drop 2 of their 20 games.
I realize there are plenty of issues with these ideas but it wasn’t meant to be a solution is was meant to begin a discussion on how this issue could balloon when you have teams in all sports trying to reach the top 8 of the RPI or hold on to their position in the top 8 even though the remainder of the schedule has no other meaning. And maybe there really isn’t an issue in the majorities eyes and this type of situation is deemed a freak accident unlikely to happen enough to be concerned. I disagree with that assumption and do believe there should be some kind of remedy for teams who have clinched all they can prior to the end of their regular season and they should not be put in a situation to “have to” win a game of no meaning at the end of the season
I know the WIAA has been very clear that this year’s RPI system is simply the beginning. They have stated from the start there are going to be changes and tweaks to the system but they believe this system as is remains a better option than the old system that was regularly blasted for the unfair match-ups in the early rounds. I applaud the WIAA for taking on this issue and not sticking to the old “sorry this is the way we’ve always done it” mentality. They are willing to change if it means a better and fairer process.
What happened to TJ and Cougars on Tuesday night is certainly a nightmarish situation. But this is also why High School sports are so important because they can reflect real life situations and now the Cougs have 2 choices, they can let the situation define them and give up or they can take the life lesson from this horrible accident, learn from it immediately get back to work to finish the job. No doubt their Floor General would only see one way to go and no doubt if you know the Capital Cougars they will take this as motivation and look for all of the Cougs to find yet another level they might not even know they have deep inside themselves.
We wish nothing but the best for TJ and Cougs and we hope the WIAA will at least have a discussion on unintended consequences such as this as they continue to develop the new and better system into our State Play-offs.