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High school basketball: Tournaments set to open

This week marks the beginning of February Madness here in the state of Utah.

Seven of the 10 high school state basketball tournaments get under way this week, including the 1A girls tournament that will crown a champion on Saturday at the Sevier Valley Center in Richfield.

The other six tourneys are limited to first-round and play-in games this weekend, but the 34 games will effectively end the dream of winning a state championship for 34 teams.

The 3A first round will take place at home sites, with the girls playing on Friday and the boys on Saturday. All 2A first-round games will be played at Southern Utah University, with the girls taking center stage on Friday and the boys on Saturday.

Ten additional play-in games in 5A and 4A girls basketball dot the slate on Saturday, a significant change from past tourneys.

In years past, the top 16 teams in 5A and 4A qualified for the playoffs based simply on their region finish. A push by the boys and girls basketball coaches associations changed that simplistic approach.

With the inevitability of stronger and weaker regions, the coaches convinced the UHSAA to add a round of play-in games to ensure that the best teams ultimately reached the state tournament.

As a result, there are four 5A play-in games and six 4A play-in games this Saturday. The winners advance to their respective 16-team state tournaments that get under way at home sites next Tuesday.

"I like it; it gives an extra team an opportunity to get into state. I don't see where it hurts. Sometimes you want to have that guarantee, but I guess it kind of depends on how you look," said Timpanogos coach Melinda Johnson.

The new format will have the biggest impact on Region 2 and Region 4 in Class 5A.

With one game remaining in the regular season, there are five girls basketball teams with above-.500 overall records in Region 4 and just one in Region 2. Under the old format, the top four teams from each region advanced to state. Now, however, the No. 4 and No. 5 seeds from each region must win a play-in game to advance to the 16-team state tournament.

Most of the coaches love the change, and this Saturday it will finally become reality. The following Saturday, the 5A and 4A boys will have the same round of play-in games.

"That's what state tournament should be about, having the best teams compete," said Johnson.

Outside of what figure to be very competitive semifinal and championship games at the 1A girls state tournament this weekend, most of the other competitive games are in 3A.

On the boys side, Emery (16-4) had a fantastic season in winning the Region 12 championship, but its reward is a brutal first-round game against Ben Lomond (15-6), the No. 4 seed from Region 11. The Scots had a rough spell to start region play, but they won four of five to close the season, and that lone loss was a 51-49 setback against Judge.

Another Region 11 and Region 12 clash between Morgan and Juab figures to be extremely close as well.

On the 3A girls side, Region 12 runner-up Richfield (17-3) hosts Region 11 third-place finisher Judge (18-3). Both teams are capable of winning the 3A championship, but one of their seasons will end this Saturday.

Don't expect much drama from the 2A first-round games. There are only 17 2A schools, and all but one qualify for state. As a result, there will likely be some pretty lopsided outcomes this weekend.

NOTE: The UHSAA will no longer be selling programs at state tournament sites. Instead, programs can be downloaded at uhsaa.org.

e-mail: jedward@desnews.com