Poor officiating mars otherwise excellent NCAA tourney

Last night, the NCAA crowned its 2015 men’s basketball champion. As is often the case, the crown went to the high-quality team that played the best defense. Unexpectedly, from a pre-tournament perspective, that team was Duke, a squad that know-it-all John Feinstein had said “thinks defense is what you put around your backyard.”

This tournament, though it sagged a bit in the middle, was excellent. Opening Thursday featured lots of close games and plenty of upsets. The Round of Eight produced three enthralling games. Two of the three Final Four contests were near classics.

Those who bemoan the current state of men’s college basketball have an unconvincing case. The game certainly is not without flaws, but it’s hardly “a joke.” For my money, men’s college basketball remains up there with our other major sports.

Unfortunately, the refereeing in this year’s tournament was terribly flawed. In the early games, or at least those I watched, the officials called way too many cheap fouls (nickel and dimers, as Bill Raftery says), which kept important players on the bench and destroyed the flow. The officials also produced some head-scratchers, most notably the ridiculous goal-tending call against SMU that handed the game to UCLA.

In the latter rounds, the refs seemed to loosen up, but continued to make mystifying calls. The Kentucky-Wisconsin semi-final was poorly officiated, but seemed not to favor either team. For example, the failure late in the game to call an obvious flagrant foul against Kentucky was soon followed by awarding Wisconsin a basket on a shot that clearly occurred after the shot clock expired.

Things got even worse in the final, and this time the officiating strongly favored Duke. In the closing stages, the Blue Devils benefited from three terrible calls.

The most annoying one was the award of possession to Duke after replays clearly showed the ball went out of bounds off the final touch of Justice Winslow. What’s the point of stopping a game for minutes to review a call if the refs won’t reverse the decision even when everyone in America can see, through slow motion replay, the decision was wrong?

The refs blew another key out-of-bounds call, failing to notice that Winslow was out of bounds when he made a pass that led to a three-point play (the old-fashioned way) by Okafor. And Duke caught another enormous break when the ref called a blocking foul on an obvious charge by Winslow. Had the proper call been made, Winslow would have fouled out.

The missed Winslow charge was emblematic of several cases in which Duke players plowed into Badgers and got the call. Mathew Giles in the Washington Post summarizes:

After the initial 20 minutes, Duke had been whistled for seven fouls and Wisconsin just two. That isn’t unusual — the Badgers typically defend without sending opponents to the free throw line — but coach Mike Krzyzewski wasn’t going to let the game’s three referees enter the half without a thorough haranguing.

Fast-forward to the second half, and though Wisconsin had a nine-point lead with 13 minutes remaining, the foul disparity had completely flipped. The Badgers had accumulated nine fouls by the nine minute mark, including [a] highly questionable call on Bronson Koenig and [a] Tyus Jones flop that was rewarded by the ref’s anticipatory whistle.

As a result, Duke began living at the foul line. For the game, Duke had ten more free-throws than Wisconsin, and made ten more, in a five-point game.

Giles argues that Duke received highly favorable refereeing throughout the tournament. But until the final, there’s no case that the officiating affected the outcome.

Did it affect the outcome of the final? I don’t know. It’s a pity that we can’t know who would have won a properly officiated game.

Regardless, Duke deserves plenty of credit. As I said, the Blue Devils were terrific on defense. That’s a credit not just to the players but also to Coach Krzyzewski, who by the end of the year, got a very young team to resemble some of his best defensive teams of the past.

Duke also made the big shots. And Duke was the aggressor down the stretch.

Fortune often favors the brave. But it’s easier to be brave when fortune’s not the only thing favoring you.

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