This NCAA Tournament has been filled with tons of spectacular plays and terrific finishes but a shadow has been cast over the first weekend by the officiating at the ends of a few games. Referees have long been antagonized by players, coaches, fans and the media for blowing close calls on a big stage, and usually those feelings of anger are misplaced. But in the last few moments of the Butler upset over Pittsburgh and Arizona's win over Texas, the games were ultimately and almost exclusively decided by the officials.
On Saturday, the No. 1 seed Pitt Panthers played the eighth seed Butler Bulldogs in the second round in the Southeast Region. Butler is certainly not unfamiliar with the spotlight, having been a Gordon Hayward heave from winning the national championship over Duke last season. But this year they're a middle-of-the-pack team from a bad Horizon League conference without much of a chance at going too deep into the tournament. They escaped from the, frankly, better team in Old Dominion the previous round to have a chance at facing the Big East powerhouse Pittsburgh.
Head coach Brad Stevens spread his team out and played perimeter basketball, hitting 12 threes and limiting turnovers (six) to keep the game close despite the 10 percent difference in field goal percentage. The scrappy bulldogs were in position to somehow pull off the upset after Shawn Vanzant found a cutting Andrew Smith for the layup with 2.2 seconds left. Then Shelvin Mack committed an inexplicable foul on Gilbert Brown at halfcourt. Brown went to the line and hit the first, tying it, then missed the second. Matt Howard grabbed the rebound and Nasir Robinson, the junior from Chester, did one of the dumbest things anyone has ever done on a basketball court with 0.8 seconds left. If you haven't seen the footage, watch the embedded video below.
There is no basketball coach, player, or fan in the world who will tell you that what Robinson did was completely irrational. Maybe he was trying for the impossible putback and win the game in regulation. But if he knew that the game was, in fact, tied, he has no business being anywhere near a Butler player trying to shoot the ball. Nasir's got to let the game go into overtime and see how it plays out. He was quoted at Pitt blog Cardiac Hill as saying "It was the dumbest mistake of my life." I feel bad for the kid because this will live with him for the rest of his life. Same for Gilbert Brown, who could have made the foul shot and made this entire thing moot.
But why in the world is the referee making that call? What is the reasoning? People will say that a foul at the beginning of the game is a foul at the end of the game. Usually I agree. But Matt Howard is about 90 feet away from the basket with less than a second left. Time is expiring, this game is going into overtime. Just let the game go into overtime and make everyone in the nation happy. No one but Butler fans would want that game to end like that. No one. Not the NCAA, not the CBS/TNT/TBS/TruTV quad-fecta, certainly not Pittsburgh, and not basketball fans around the world. If that foul doesn't get called, people forget about it and everyone gets to enjoy an extra five minutes of what was previously a great basketball game. It's not like Matt Howard was going to hit a 90 foot hook shot. The contact had no bearing on what was going to happen.
The following night, an even more egregious error was committed by official Jim Burr. The same ref who blew the St. John's/Rutgers game in the Big East tournament and also another Texas game which was against UConn earlier in the year. Before I rage at him, here's the clip.
Five-second and eight-second violations are generally overlooked by most officiating crews, especially in late game situations. But not for Jim Burr. Ole Jim has decided that five seconds is far too much time for an inbounds play and, in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, publicly shortened it to 4.2 seconds. Would Rick Barnes have diagrammed the right play to push the Longhorns over the top? Perhaps. But it's painfully obvious that he should have had the chance to do it.
Referees have a terribly difficult job. They almost never get credit for the calls they do make correctly and are the brunt of most fan anger and player/coach tirades. The best way to alleviate these job problems are to do nothing. Let the players play. They're good at it. They don't need your help deciding the game in the final moments. They can do it themselves. Instead of people talking about Brandon Knight or Juan Fernandez or Isiah Thomas or any of the other players who hit huge shots to win games in the tournament, they're pointing fingers at officials for advancing Butler and Arizona to the next rounds and not letting their extremely able players do it for them.
All four teams are affected by this. Sean Miller and Brad Stevens are undoubtedly thrilled to advance to the next round but I can bet both coaches would rather the games have gone to overtime. Now the rest of their tournament runs (length pending on the play of Duke and Wisconsin) will be asterisked by poor officiating or at the very least a gift-wrapped win.
Tough break for the kids from Texas and Pittsburgh, especially seniors like Brad Wanamaker, Gilbert Brown, Gary McGhee, Dogus Balbay and Gary Johnson. Who knows what would have happened if those games had gone into overtime? Hopefully the rest of the tournament will be less on the backs of the officials and more on the players.