On Blowing The Call, Then Doubling Down

Last Saturday, Northwestern University – a school that in every other context deserves absolutely no sympathy – found itself playing in the NCAA tournament’s second round. Whether or not they should have been there is beside the point. What matters is that they were. And at the end of their first half of action against Gonzaga, they were getting the absolute hell kicked out of them, down 18 at half-time against a Zags team that appeared to be, in every possible way, Northwestern’s better.

This was the end of the team’s cinderella story. This was Northwestern’s first NCAA tournament appearance. The team earned its trip with a stunning last second victory against Michigan and then won a game in the tournament itself after a shock win against Vanderbilt (that owed as much to a catastrophic Vanderbilt blunder as it did to anything done by NU). But reality comes for everybody and after one-half of play, it was knocking on the door for NU.

Sports is sports though. The things that we expect are not always the things that we get. In the second half, NU battled back, narrowing Gonzaga’s 18-point lead to five and suddenly making everybody think about the possibility on a truly enormous upset. Gonzaga is 34-1, its only loss coming in its final game of the season against BYU, a loss that confounded all observers. Although not necessarily a well-known school otherwise, Gonzaga is a relative giant within college basketball, owing to a remarkably successful program under head coach Mark Few. But again, here was NU, knocking on the door, threatening to defeat one of Few’s greatest ever teams, inexplicably back in a game that it appeared entirely out of an hour earlier.

And then this happened:

That would be Gonzaga’s Zach Collins putting his hand though the basket to block a dunk attempt by Northwestern’s Dererk Pardon. This is goaltending and would usually result in Northwestern’s basket being counted regardless of whether Pardon had actually make it, but the “usually” here is predicated on the referees actually seeing the goaltend. Those referees did not see the goaltend, ruling instantaneously that the block was clean. Those same referees were then confronted by Northwestern’s incredulous coach, Chris Collins, who rightly told them that they had badly blown the call. In response, they whistled him for a technical foul, giving Gonzaga two technical free-throws and possession of the ball afterward.

To recap: Gonzaga, leading by five, illegally goaltended a basket that should have cut their lead to three, and were then given two additional points, as well as possession of the basketball, when Northwestern objected to the goaltend. Gonzaga’s lead, pushed to seven instead of cut to three, proved to be enough, as the Zags ended up winning 79-73. After the game, the NCAA acknowledged having blown the call, issuing the following statement:

“With 4:57 remaining in this evening’s second-round game between Gonzaga and Northwestern, the officials missed a rules violation when a Gonzaga defender put his arm through the rim to block a shot. Rule 9, Section 15 of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Rules Book covers Basket Interference and Goaltending. Article 2.a.3 states that basket interference occurs when a player reaches through the basket from below and touches the ball before it enters the cylinder. Replays showed the Gonzaga defender violated this rule, which should have resulted in a scored basket by Northwestern.”

There was nothing to be done at this point. Northwestern had been screwed twice, badly, but the game was over. Gonzaga marched on. Northwestern went home. But because the NCAA can never just be the NCAA, it also clarified that the technical foul call was the correct one, because even though the officials had screwed Northwestern the first time, this was insufficient justification for Chris Collins to have been angry about it.

“Subsequently, with 4:54 remaining in the game and based on bench decorum rules outlined in the rules book, a technical foul was assessed to Northwestern head coach Chris Collins for coming on to the floor to argue the non-call while the ball was in play.”

This lead, predictably, to one of the oldest arguments in sports: is it reasonable to get angry about how the referees call a game? This argument tends to break down into two camps:

  • In the first, there are the fans who have benefitted from the call. They’re the ones who forcefully claim that the referees have had no impact whatsoever on the game’s outcome and that fans of the losing team are simply upset about having endured the loss.
  • In the second, there are the fans who have suffered from the call. They’re the ones who forcefully claim that the competition itself was unbalanced by the refereeing of the game and that the fans of the winning team are only dismissing what happened because they benefitted from it.

If only there were the tidiness of an explicit answer.  There isn’t. We cannot, and can never, know the unknowable of what would have happened had a call gone differently. Northwestern’s comeback might have sputtered at closing to within three after all, and what then? This is true of course. This though only addresses the first of the two calls. Had the referees only missed the goaltend, the Gonzaga lead remains five points. But they then whistled Collins for his response to their mistake, and this is where the true perniciousness begins.

At issue is the expectation of the thing. The referees hold Collins to a higher standard than they hold themselves to. They are allowed to make a catastrophic, game-altering mistake, albeit one they do not understand that they have made. He is not allowed to object to them even if he is correct about their error. In other words, the victim of the first is victimized a second-time by being asked to stand idly by after having been wrong.

…record scratch…

There is something buried deep within this example applicable to our broader political and cultural world, one in which aggrieved people are expected to not only endure specific injustice, but are then expected to object to that injustice in a manner palatable to those who caused the first one.

This is about basketball though, and not society, and so this point will be left here to marinate, not because it isn’t salient, but because there is something gross about comparing referees getting something wrong to society getting something wrong, even if the one illustrates the other in a lighthearted fashion.

But before getting back to the basketball, a final thought: the people who insist that Collins was obliged to endure the referees screwing him and his team over are generally the same people who insist that those objecting to society’s wrongs do so in the “appropriate” fashion. This is one of those things that makes sports so goddamned awful to be a fan of.

…record scratching back…

One of the worst problems in sports – in all sports, frankly – is that these miscarriages of athletic justice almost always occur to the underdogs. Northwestern, although an overdog in every other cultural regard, was last Saturday’s underdog, and it was the one victimized by the referees. Here is Louisville against UC Irvine. Here is UCLA against SMU. Here are five of them from this tournament (the Northwestern call is, predictably, at the top of the heap). In every case, the lower ranked program is the one paying the price for what the referees decide and it is difficult to find any examples of the opposite scenario occurring, one in which the referees hand a huge advantage to the underdog.

Is it that referees always prefer the better team? Is it that better teams so rarely find themselves in losing situations that their opportunities to be victimized by bad whistles are so rare by comparison? Is it some combination of the two, plus a healthy dose of something else?

The Sweet Sixteen begins tonight.