What’s the matter with Kansas prep basketball?

By Bill Felber

Forty-three years is a long time to wait to tell somebody you think they’re screwing up big-time. But it is not long enough for me to forget my poor opinion of the way the Kansas State High School Activities Association sets up its high school basketball season.

I came here in 1969 from Illinois, a state with one of the best high school basketball programs in the country. The Kansas program suffered then by comparison, and nothing has changed in the interim.

The simplest way to measure the discrepancy in the approaches taken by the states of Illinois and Kansas is by the calendar, which is to say by schedules. The schedules being played this year by the school I used to cover in Illinois as a cub reporter and by Manhattan High are instructive.

The Manhattan High Indians — I’m talking about the boys team here, but the same point could be made about the girls programs — began their season on Dec. 2, a Friday. By that point the Thornton, Ill., Wildcats — yes, they wear purple – had already played a tournament.

In Illinois, the basketball season traditionally opens with events staged during Thanksgiving week. These are eight-team events, each team playing three games, beginning Tuesday night and concluding with Saturday night’s championship. Hey, it’s not like it interferes with school or anything.

Three, coincidentally, is also exactly the number of games Manhattan High played during all of December this season. I haven’t had reason to look into this in decades, but I believe the state association in Kansas mandates a “no-contact” period for some time around Christmas break.

By Jan. 1 of 2012, Thornton High — the school in Illinois that I used to cover — had played a full dozen games. In addition to the three Thanksgiving tournament games, Thornton played four more in one of the big 16 or 32-team Christmas tournaments played between Dec. 26 and Dec. 30. Those tournaments routinely get major ink in the state’s newspapers.

In Kansas, that’s when high school basketballers are enjoying their Christmas presents.

Manhattan did play a tournament a week ago. The boys did, anyway. The girls had the week off. They played their tournament this past week. By the date this column appears, the MHS boys basketball team will have played 11 games. In Illinois, the Thornton Township boys team will have played 17.

Tournaments are only part of the issue. A second part is the unwillingness of Kansas teams to play back-to-back weekend games.

Of MHS’s 11 games to date, five were scheduled for Friday nights, five for other weeknights and just one for a Saturday night. All of the five weeknight games were on school nights. At Thornton High, the breakdown by night of their 17 games to date is as follows: Friday, nine; Saturday, four; weeknights four…all of them during Thanksgiving or Christmas breaks.

So the athletes at Thornton missed zero hours of school class times and had zero late nights of class prep due to basketball games. At MHS, by contrast, nearly 50 percent of the games have been played in the middle of school weeks. And I can assure you that travel times to game sites are far longer in Kansas than they are in Illinois, meaning each disruption is greater.

By the end of the regular season on Feb. 24, MHS athletes will have played 20 games, 40 percent of them on school nights. Athletes at Thornton will end their regular season on the same date, but they will have played 25 games, only three of them on school nights.

In the unlikely event I’m ever put in charge, I’d redo the Kansas system to more closely resemble the one in Illinois. That would include fewer school-day games, more back-to-back weekends, plus more and better-timed in-season tournaments.

I believe the byproduct of all of that would be more games, more interest in those games, and more revenue produced. It would also mean less time out of class for the athletes.

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