Realistically, Rhode Island and Kentucky have very little in common.
But that changed dramatically a few days ago when the Rhode Island Interscholastic League’s Principals Committee on Athletics voted that one – repeat, only one – boys’ basketball team will wear the title of state champion next March.
The Bluegrass state is the only other state in the country with a similar format, since Indiana several years ago went the way of the multi-state champion (or to put it another way, forget about the Hickory High Huskers and coach Norman Dale).
“I would say it’s a pilot program,” said RIIL Executive Director Tom Mezzanotte. “At the end of the season, we’ll sit down as a committee and ask if it met our expectations and if it was good for the sport. Based on the feedback from our member schools, we’ll either go forward or not.
“But, obviously, it’s not a one-shot seal. That’s the bottom line. This is a four-year alignment. We will reassess the teams in each division after two years.”
The last time Rhode Island crowned only one state champion in this sport was 1966.
Under the format devised by the league, 16 teams will participate in the state tournament: eight from Division I, five from Division II and three from Division III.
“The three regular-season champions will get an automatic bid,” explained Mezzanotte. “But that could be the same team, or teams, that win the division tournament. If Hendricken (a perennial Division I power) wins its division and then wins the division tournament, that opens up a slot for another team.
“Everything will be based on seeding at the end of the regular season, and we have to come up with criteria for seeding although the (16) teams will be split into two regions (I and II). Now, let’s say your school is not ranked within those areas, in order to get into the state tournament you’ll have to win the division title. This puts major emphasis on the regular season. But it gives teams that get hot at the end of the regular season a chance to win the state tournament.
“It puts a lot of intrigue into a true state tournament,” added Mezzanotte. “It’s not because it’s the trendy thing to do. It’s because it’s do-able.”
Mezzanotte readily offered that he’s been pushing for one state tournament since he was appointed several years ago to his current position.
“The reason for doing this is there is so much parity in boys’ basketball,” he said. “There are so many teams that are excellent.
“The Feinstein team of a few years ago had a small but excellent team. They never would have had a chance at a state championship because of the division they played in. Look at Central Falls (which won the 2010 Division III Tournament) and Johnston. They were very good teams.
“I’m not going to say Division I is better than Division III,” continued Mezzanotte. “There are teams in Division III - as we’ve seen in non-league games -that can knock off Division I schools. You could have an excellent season and be knocked off in the quarterfinals of your division tournament. But now, you will have a chance to get a bid to the state tournament.”
At the moment, the quarterfinals are scheduled for March 3 and 4 in Region I and March 5 in Region II.
The semifinal winners will dribble to the Final Four at URI’s Ryan Center on March 11. The championship game is scheduled for March 13.
There is another way Rhode Island’s new format differs from Kentucky’s.
“Kentucky has 16 regions, and out of each region comes a finalist that goes to the state tournament,” said Mezzanotte. “When they have their Final Four at Rupp Arena, they hold the semifinals in the morning and the finals at night.
“We’re not going to do that.”
For what would appear to be obvious reasons.
SAME SPORT, NEW LOOK
To coin a phrase, they’re breaking up that old gang of mine.
That’s the story with the R.I. Interscholastic League which implemented a major football realignment for the next four seasons.
Most notably, two schools that have won more than their share of Super Bowls no longer will be playing in Division I: Rogers High and St. Raphael Academy.
The Vikings, who in the mid-1970s, set the gold standard for Rhode Island high school football, have dropped down from Division I to Division III – a division normally reserved for schools that lack the track record and tradition of Rogers.
But the Vikings only have had two winning seasons over the last nine years, and over the last four, have posted a combined record of 9-23.
The Saints, meanwhile, also have been frequent post-season participants and have won Super Bowls in various divisions – including Division I. But a drop in male enrollment (a la Rogers) forced St. Raphael to drop to Division II.
“We’re still a small school (with barely a couple of hundred boys) and we wanted to be a little more competitive,” said SRA coach Mike Sassi. “The lineups we were fielding near the end of last season really weren’t Division I caliber (i.e. in a game against Division I power La Salle, SRA dressed only 25 players).
“There were a couple of weeks when I felt like we were going into a gun fight and I had a rock in my pocket.”
The RIIL uses a formula based on 60 percent enrollment of males in a school and couples that with a 40 percent winning percentage of league games during the previous realignment period.
Then, schools are slotted in appropriate divisions. But what complicates matters is when schools that are slotted say, in Division I or II, petition to remain in a lower division on the premise that they would be more competitive.
Conversely, schools that are slotted lower can petition to move up.
Following are other notable “slottings":
Ponaganset, which won the 2009 Division III Super Bowl, and invariably has played in this division or Division IV, now moves up to Division II-B.
South Kingstown and Cranston East move up from Division II to replace Rogers and St. Raphael.
Lincoln, which qualified for the Division II playoffs in 2009, drops down to Division III.
Rob Alers and Antonio Mena combined last winter to lead Central Falls to the school’s first boys’ basketball championship (in Division III) in 22 years. Alers and Mena will remain teammates since both will dribble north to Division III Lyndon (Vt.) State.
Alers was voted the Division III Tournament MVP after nearly posting a triple-double (32 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists) in the 76-73 overtime conquest of Johnston in the title game. Mena, meanwhile, torched Johnston for 22 points and 22 rebounds.
Mike Scandura has been covering high school sports, college basketball and hockey and minor league baseball in Rhode Island since the early 1970s. A native of Oswego, N.Y., he’s a member of the Words Unlimited Hall of Fame, which is the statewide organization of sportswriters, sportscasters and sports publicists.