Saturday, January 24, 2009

Basketball: Where the fix is on

Last year, the University of Washington men's basketball team won 16 games in the process of missing the NCAA Tournament AND the NIT for a second straight disappointing season, and if coach Lorenzo Romar wasn't canned after last season (he wasn't), he was certainly on the hot seat to win this year, and win big, or go home.

Today, UW won their 15th game of the season with more than a month of regular season basketball left, following a surprising 86-75 victory at home over 13th ranked UCLA, amazing given this season looked like more of the same on opening day for UW following an inexplicable 80-74 loss at lowly Portland University.

It looks like an amazing, impressive victory... until you look at the box score, and a familiar problem with basketball at any level rears its ugly head.

Free throws:
UCLA - 10 made in 15 attempted
Washington - 36 made in 43 attempted

Fouls called:
UCLA - 28
Washington - 18

UCLA - road team
Washington - home team

The foul situation and free throws awarded gave UW such a decided advantage that Lorenzo Romar should have been fired if UW lost this game.

Some pundits rave about a team's ability to draw fouls. However, the so-called ability to draw fouls belies the point that a foul is a subjective penalty: a referee must decide a foul has been committed in order for a foul to get called.

Granted, UW starter Justin Dentmon got four fouls called on him, and spent much of the game on the bench himself. His team had to hold serve without the services of one of their best players. Bt this belies the point that the home team, UW, in front of a raucous crowd who came not just to see former star Brandon Roy's jersey retired at Edmundson Pavilion, but to see their then 14-4 ballclub, resurgent after last year's 16-17 disappointment, try and upend arguably the best team in the Pac 10 Conference in UCLA. There was a lot to gain in sending 15,000 home fans happy with a division lead-grabbing win over a top opponent. For now, let's just say one side stands to gain more from receiving the benefit of the doubt.

How officials elect to call fouls in a game varies from game to game. Watch enough games and you will notice a distinctive trend of certain teams getting favorable calls on both sides of the ball, which is statisically justified in surveying Top 25 NCAA Division I squads. For example, Duke, one of the perennial top college teams in the country, plays a game or two at Cameron Indoor Stadium, their home court, and key players on the opposing team get rung up on curious foul calls from vague, ticky-tack contact, landing on the bench with multiple fouls. Duke, meanwhile, contentedly jabs and shoves at their opposition, at times committing what typically would be blatant fouls in knocking the ball from their opponent's possession without a call from the official. After the inevitable Blue Devils' win, the TV pundits praise Duke's ability to take control of the game and shut down the other team's offense, while bashing the other team's erratic foul-prone ways and their 'inability' to stay out of foul trouble. Any officiating mistakes lead to slaps on the wrist, maybe a one game suspension or loss of postseason assignments, but nothing more.

Too often for comfort you get such a discrepancy of fouls called to one team's benefit, typically a home team with a great following with a lot to gain from winning, that cries come from the peanut gallery that the fix is on. We see a lot of favoritism in the NBA as well, dating back to the Jordan Rule, which is not to be confused with the late 80's Detroit Pistons' "Jordan Rules", which in a nutshell were to beat up Michael Jordan and take his wallet... though the Jordan Rule may be the NBA's response to Detroit's Jordan Rules.

The Jordan Rule was the unwritten rule that Bulls star Michael Jordan could basically make all the contact he wanted on defense or, say, take five steps before a dunk and the refs would never call him on it, or an opposing player would get a foul called if he so much as grazed Jordan's wrist while swiping at the ball... because it benefited the league as a whole for Jordan to succeed, so he got the benefit of the doubt 9 times out of 10. It's akin to, say, letting a former football player off the hook for murdering his ex-wife because he's a famous ex-football player. The Jordan Rule wasn't an active rule: simply an unspoken rule put to practice by all officials to benefit the NBA by enhancing its best player's image as a top player.

The crown jewel moment of the Jordan Rule came on the winning shot that sealed the Bulls 6th and final NBA title under Jordan. With the Bulls trailing and needing a go-ahead bucket with seconds left on an inbound play, Utah Jazz leading defender Bryon Russell covered Jordan, and Jordan gave Russell a blatant two handed shove that knocked Russell back a couple feet before taking the inbound pass and a resulting wide open three-pointer that he sunk to seal Utah's doom and Chicago's 6th title. No foul was called. A couple of pundits took notice but the media shushed it away in praising Jordan's dominance.

We see this sort of favoritism in officiating NBA stars like Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, Shaq and others. And the recent Tim Donaghy gambling scandal certainly didn't help the NBA's officiating credibility.

Be we certainly see it in college basketball. Never mind that the top schools have a lot of the top talent. Despite lacking fundamentals and chemistry, these teams also get a disproportionate advantage in foul calls. It can't all be a giant coincidence, and not every team they play (and many of these Top 25 teams do play other talented teams not known for foul trouble) loses their ability to play defense without fouling players. Eventually, the trend is too decided to simply call it a coincidence, or a product of some innate tangible ability to 'draw fouls'.

Now, this trend doesn't manifest itself every single time. For example, since I love picking on Duke: in Duke's January 17 win over 12th ranked Georgetown, Georgetown managed more free throws by a pinch but still lost. While there were relatively few free throws, there were still a healthy 37 fouls called, so you can't say this game had an officiating crew that kept their hands off. That said, the foul distribution was straight down the middle, and both teams had key players in foul trouble. However, that was also the game where Georgetown postman Greg Monroe got called for a dubious technical foul that allowed Duke to seize some valuable momentum with 15 minutes left. Even though they didn't get all the calls, Duke got a timely call that helped them win the game.

Still, this is not to say that refs fix every game and predetermine every outcome like pro wrestling. Hardly: many crews call a straight game and the teams on the court decide the game themselves. But you get a lot of games where the officials skew the calls in one direction for whatever reason: intimidation from the home crowd, the NCAA, their employing conference or the situation, a few hundred bucks on the home team at -130 to win straight up, etc.

The NBA is losing their fanbase in part because of a sloppy game where officiating, not the play on the court, decides far too many games. College basketball will always have a rabid following, but slanted officiating remains a problem that turns off casual fans. Many diehard fans blow off the need for better officiating, but as the quality of the pro game and the college game decreases despite a continually growing talent base, league officials at all levels ought to make a serious effort to overhaul how their officials call games, and let the players on the court decide the games.

It's nice to see UW win a big game against a Top 25 rival. It would be far nicer to see them win an evenly officiated contest where they did not receive such a blatant opportunity advantage. And I say this as a local fan who wants to see the Huskies succeed... with integrity.

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