A SWEET 16 TO REMEMBER

Lyon County’s highly-touted sophomore Travis Perry shoots in the Lyons’ win over John Hardin at the UK Healthcare Boys’ Sweet 16. Perry is on a pace that could make him the state’s all-time scoring leader by the time he finishes at Lyon County.

Kentucky’s unique event celebrates the positive in sports

By John Herndon, 110forChrist.com

I have to admit that I have been having some withdrawal pains.

The high school basketball season is officially over for me and even though I love celebrating the game, the champions and the award winners, I get a tinge of sadness when the final horn sounds on a season. Even before I started writing in 1985, I had attended enough games to know that unlike anything else, high school basketball can bring people together in Kentucky.  

And often, March Madness can tell us a lot about ourselves, our towns and our schools. I saw multiple communities practically relocate to some high school gymnasium or transform portions of Rupp Arena into a sea of a school color. Not every school or community follows that script, of course, but the ones that do deserve a major tip of the hat. 

The excitement isn’t limited to the small schools either. One of the loudest fan sections in my book was Louisville Male, one of the largest schools in the tourney. Male had a trip to Rupp Arena wiped out by COVID two years ago, so the Bulldogs were making their first Sweet 16 appearance in 20 years.

It’s been two weeks since the UK Healthcare Boys’ Sweet 16 tipped off in Lexington and there could not have been a more fitting return to normalcy than four days of heart-stopping action at Rupp Arena.

Louisville Male fans filled one end of Rupp Arena for the Bulldogs’ game with Warren Central in the first round. Male was making its first appearance in the Sweet 16 since 2002.

You know the recent Sweet 16 history. The 2020 event was canceled because of COVID-19. The 2021 tournament ended in early April and was played with some major restrictions on crowd size. But two weeks ago, more than 85,000 fans descended on Rupp Arena over four days. That figure isn’t what it was before the pandemic – you have to go back to 1994 to find a lower attendance – but the numbers are getting there and the people are coming back. 

However, given that many effects of the COVID pandemic are still lingering around and many are still somewhat leery of gathering in crowds, it was a good number. Some also cite the ongoing renovation construction at Rupp Arena as a factor in keeping the turnout down but the guess here is the COVID factor and high gas prices kept the numbers below pre-pandemic levels.

In many ways, this year’s Sweet 16 gave what made it the greatest basketball tournament in the world. Nearly every game was a nail-biter that kept fans on the edge of their seats. Only four of the 15 games were decided by 10 points or more. Two of those – Covington Catholic 76, Ashland Blazer 65 and Lincoln County 56, North Oldham 46 – just barely made it to double digits.

Eight games were decided by less than five points. Saturday’s games, the semifinals and finals, were decided by 7 points. Total.

By comparison, last year’s tournament had no games decided by fewer than five points and 12 of the 15 games had double digit margins.

In addition, this year’s tournament featured a lot of small town pride. Friday’s quarterfinals featured three schools – Pikeville, Lyon County and Murray – which had played in the  All-A Classic in January. Add to that the fact that no team from Louisville or Lexington advanced past the first round and it just added to the small town mystique, even though a large school, George Rogers Clark, defeated Warren Central, from Bowling Green, for the title. It was GRC’s first state title since 1951.

George Rogers Clark coach Josh Cook talks with his team during the quarterfinal win over Pikeville.

(Fun fact: When Jeffersontown, Male and Henry Clay all fell in the first round of the Sweet 16 it marked the first time since Louisville was split into two regions for the 1965-66 season that no team from the regions representing the state’s two largest cities advanced to the quarterfinals. In fact the last time no team from either city made it past the first round was in 1954. WOW!)

This tournament will be talked about for many years to come. It was a great one!

**No one does championship event better than the Kentucky High School Athletic Association. Julian Tackett and crew have done a marvelous job in putting together championship events in tough times. We might not agree with every decision the KHSAA makes, but there is little doubt that providing first-class experiences for student-athletes is the KHSAA’s goal.

Well done!

**We are also grateful that the KHSAA sees value in the type of content we try to bring at 110forChrist and approved our credential requests, just as they did in 2020. (There was limited media space in 2021 but we did work for another outlet during the girls’ tournament.) We are a bit different in that we don’t produce game stories or post statistics. There are numerous outlets providing that information and we don’t want to be a voice telling the same stories. Our mission is to focus on feature stories of inspiration and columns such as this one to offer positive perspectives in the sports world.

At the Sweet 16, we were blessed to talk with Centre College coach Greg Mason, former Kentucky Mr. Basketball and current Johnson Central assistant coach J.R. VanHoose as well as another former Mr. Basketball and Pikeville High coach Elisha Justice.  If you missed those stories, we hope you get a chance to go back and check them out. They are among the most popular stories we have ever offered at 110forChrist.

**One thing I have never understood is the constant chatter about changing the format of the Sweet 16.  And for years, there have been calls to go to multiple-classes since Kentucky is the last single class tournament left. And when two of the top teams draw in the first round, such as Male and Warren Central this year, there are calls to seed the tournament.

Why? Why mess up a precious tradition?

Players from Murray (black uniforms) and Henry Clay gather for a prayer circle following their first-round game. Murray, one of the smallest schools in the tournament, knocked off Henry Clay, one of the state’s largest schools. (All photos by John Herndon)

As far as seeding goes, it would be very difficult, practically impossible to fairly seed a statewide high school tournament, given travel considerations and the cyclical nature of high school sports.

When it comes to class basketball, an argument that has percolated for at least 40 years is to have four classes, four teams from each class with the class winners determined in what is now the quarterfinal round. The winners would come back to determine an overall champion. 

It sounds equitable, but Indiana tried something like that when it went to four classes in 1998. The Tournament of Champions, sponsored by the IHSAA, lasted two years.

I asked VanHoose, who led a small school, Paintsville, to the state title in 1996 and a state runner-up finish two years later, about the argument for multiple classes.

“I think if it’s not broke, you don’t fix it,” he said. “I think people have seen what has happened in Indiana. They went to classes in the late 90s and their attendance has gone down drastically.”

Alas, by the time the field had been whittled to four, the ones left standing were schools that compete in football’s Class 4A or higher. But Lyon County, Murray and Pikeville knocked off much larger schools in the first round and went down fighting in the Elite Eight.

We understand some of the arguments for multi-class basketball and acknowledge there are inherent difficulties for smaller schools to compete against schools with four or five times the enrollment or more. 

But in the end, we agree with J.R. VanHoose. The Sweet 16 ain’t broke and doesn’t need fixing.

I can’t wait for next season to get here.

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