Backdoor Cuts: Vol. I

Posted by rtmsf on November 25th, 2009


DAVE ZEITLIN: Everyone these days has a voice. And sometimes, it seems, most people try to use that voice in the most loud and obnoxious way possible. This column won’t be like that. Yes, this column will be a running dialogue between two people (myself and fellow RTC contributor Steve Moore) that will focus on angles, trends, players, coaches, fans and everything else in our favorite sport (which, if you haven’t already guessed, is college basketball).  But we promise not to Stephen A. Smith you, or act like these guys. When we do have debates, they will be civil and funny — and in most cases, I will be right. But, really, our goals with this column are simple. If we can just generate excitement about college basketball, get fans of this site thinking, and end the threat of nuclear war forever, we will have done our job.

Why should you read us? Well, for starters, the column will appear in THE place to get your college basketball news, (that’s a plug, people). Secondly, we’re both award-winning sportswriters for Philadelphia-area newspapers (yes, we know no one reads newspapers; why do you think we’re writing this column?). Thirdly, we both really, really like college basketball. (Like a lot. Like in unhealthy ways. Like we may or may not sacrifice non-vital organs for the chance to touch Gus Johnson’s larynx.) And finally, you should feel bad for us since we both root for mid-major teams that have little to no chance of winning a NCAA tournament game. I root for the mighty Penn Quakers of the Ivy League (hence the name of this column), while Steve roots for Boston University, whose best all-time basketball player is Mike Eruzione, who played hockey. This column is our salvation.

Throughout the season, we will flood you with topics from around the college basketball landscape, while splicing in semi-informed opinions and slightly irrelevant historical and pop culture references. But we wanted to start with an interesting news story that is just coming across the wire: a study that finds that college basketball referees tend to show biases in certain situations. The study basically says that a) refs favor the home team; b) refs try to even the score; c) refs do like to make “make-up” calls; and d) Duke gets every call no matter what because how can you not be terrified of this man? I have a few thoughts on this right off the bat, but I’ll let Steve — the Robin to my Batman, or Billy Packer to my Jim Nantz — take the ball and run with this one to start.

STEVE MOORE: First of all, how come you get to be Batman? Secondly, I’ve touched Gus Johnson’s larynx, and it wasn’t all that memorable. Bill Raftery’s onions, however…well that’s a different story.

Anyway, Dave did a good job of introducing our lame attempt at analysis and humor, so I won’t try to one-up him there. Except to point out that people do read newspapers (like my grandfather), and that Mike Eruzione is a national hero who doesn’t appreciate being mocked. I asked him.

Now to the topic at hand. I didn’t need a professor to tell me that referees are biased, especially toward home teams or when they know people are watching on TV. The question really is: Does it matter? I would argue that it doesn’t, and that it’s actually better for the game this way.

Do you really want your officials to not have a mind of their own? With all these debates about out or safe, strike or ball, or handball-that-destroyed-the-hopes-of-an-entire-Guiness-drinking-nation, we always hear people say “I just want them to get the call right.” Well in basketball, the only calls we have that are similar to those are whether a shot is released before the buzzer — and we already allow replay for that situation. Everything else is subjective, and open to interpretation by reasonable men (and women) who work just as hard as the players.

Every basketball fan knows that the home crowd sways officials — that’s why there’s such a thing as homecourt advantage. And make-up calls are a part of the game that we may scream about as fans, but they work out in favor of your team just as often as they hurt (unless you’re playing Duke). I was all set to come out and say that officials should be fair and never let the crowd influence them, etc., etc. And I’m sure none of them do it consciously. But think about it: Would you really want every game officiated by a robot? By an objective observer who doesn’t understand anything about flow, rhythym, or a certain spot in the game? Whether you like it or not, a foul in the first half is not the same as a foul in the second half — and it shouldn’t be. Let the players play. That’s another mantra we always hear. Well, by the strict definition of the rule book, there is likely at least one foul on EVERY POSSESSION in a college game. Everyone moves their feet on screens, everyone travels, everyone palms the ball, and everyone uses their hands on defense. But smart officials understand what they’re looking at, and know when something needs to be called.

Are there bad refs? Of course. Do good refs have bad nights? Absolutely. But part of the fun of being a hoops fan are those throwaway arguments, like “you’ll never get that call on the road.” Why do you think places like Cameron are so tough for opponents? It’s because officials get a little gun-shy with the whistle since they don’t want to hear it from the crowd. It’s human nature, and it’s part of what makes college basketball great.

Your move, caped crusader…

DZ: Now that I just finished watching Penn score 49 points in an ugly loss to Drexel, I’m ready to respond. And I’ll say this: It was the &%*#%$# refs’ fault that Penn just lost! Relax, I’m kidding. I typically try to steer cleer of shouting expletives or throwing batteries or viciously attacking refs. Being the trusting fan that I am, I assume most referees do not carry with them a malicious agenda. Plus, as Steve said, in basketball, you can probably blow the whistle on any play. It’s a damn hard job, and most do it decently.

The thing is, even if most refs don’t have a planned agenda, do they have a subconscious one? As this study tries to show, most refs try to keep the score close — so does this mean they basically go through the same emotions as fans? Do they pull for comebacks? Does the roar of the home crowd get to them? For me, two games immediately come to mind — the 2001 Duke win over Maryland in the Final Four and Arizona’s loss to Illinois in the 2005 Elite Eight. In both cases, the team that was “supposed” to win pulled off ridiculous comebacks and, if my memory serves me correctly, they did so in a “very aggressive” manner. I’m pretty sure Duke’s game-plan was to kick Steve Blake in the shins and pull his hair every time he crossed halfcourt. I’m sure there are plenty of other examples, but I’d love to hear from Maryland and Arizona fans on this one.

Of course, this is not meant to demean the nature of the sport. There have been plenty of enthralling college basketball comebacks over the years that were not aided by the referees. Also, I tend to be skeptical of studies like these that can’t be proven (and a sample size of one season may not be enough). So all I’ll say is this: referees are indeed human. They make bad calls, and it’s not a stretch to say in some cases they can get swayed by the situation of the game. Is this a bad thing? In some cases, perhaps (just ask Maryland and Arizona fans). Is this an avoidable thing? Probably not. Is this something worth discussing about? Not really. You can stop reading now.

SM: Forty-nine points is good for an Ivy League game, right?

Honestly, if referees didn’t subconsciously help keep games close, how many of the most memorable comebacks in recent years would we have missed out on? I seem to remember a few favorable non-calls in that crazy UCLA-Gonzaga tournament game a few years back, especially as Bruin players wrestled the ball away from the Zags, causing Gus Johson to run across the court in ecstasy, only to slip in a puddle of Adam Morrison’s tears. Maybe now these professors can now go on to more important and impossible things, like figuring out a way to fix the BCS.

Happy Turkey Day everyone. And if you’re feeling ambitious, toss Dave a congratulations (or condolences) on his recent engagement. Welcome to the club, buddy.

DZ: So the lessons from our debut column are this: 1) We agree that refs may sway certain outcomes — and depending on who wins, who loses and who cries, this can sometimes be a good thing; 2) We appreciate the work of all referees, expect the ones on Coach K’s payroll; 3) We both seem to have an unhealthy infatuation with Gus Johnson; and 4) I am indeed recently engaged, though my first love is still college basketball.

I will now echo Steve and wish everyone a Happy Thanksgiving. Most people associate the holiday with football and turkey, but for me growing up in New York City, I will always think of going to the preseason NIT final four at Madison Square Garden the Wednesday before every Thanksgiving. I have some great memories looking around the MSG rotunda and seeing sweatshirts and hats of four different teams, watching breakout teams and players knock off the traditional powers, and once even cringing as my stepdad screamed at the University of Minnesota band. It’s a great tournament and here’s hoping tonight’s games (LSU vs. Connecticut and Duke-Arizona State) live up to the billing. Enjoy the games, everyone — and remember, the refs aren’t trying to ruin your holiday. Probably.

Dave Zeitlin and Steve Moore’s Backdoor Cuts column will appear every Wednesday at Rush the Court. Suggestions, tips and comments are welcome. No critiques, though.

rtmsf (3998 Posts)

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2 responses to “Backdoor Cuts: Vol. I”

  1. Brett S says:

    Arizona fans shouldn’t whine too much about 2005. They were gift wrapped a Final Four berth against the Illini in 2001. Payback’s a b***h.

  2. tyus edney says:

    I think Bautista was holding the ball about three feet away from his head when he was stripped so I am not ready to concede that it was a biased call in the UCLA comeback. If you referenced the call that put Ryan Hollins on the line just before that, then you have a valid point. That one seems like a bad call that is a main reason the come back was completed. At least you didn’t complain about UCLA’s home court advantage in the Bay Area like every Kansas fan does.

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