March 24, 2013

Don't Kill the Refs

"If I show up at your door, chances are you did something to bring me there."

~Assassin for hire Martin Blank (John Cusack), in Grosse Point Blank (1997)

Several close games in this year's opening rounds of the NCAA basketball tourney have resurrected that time-honored wail from the fans of losing teams: "The refs screwed us." Usually the fans' ire is directed at a close call or no-call in the final minute of a tight game, particularly one that looks questionable or even flat out wrong in slow motion replay. But for that one bad call, fans contend, their team would have won the game.

The whining du jour comes compliments of Iowa State fans, who saw their 10th seeded Cyclones battle back against the 2nd seeded Ohio St. Buckeyes in a West Regional game, only to lose to a buzzer beating three-pointer. Cyclone fans (including many of my fellow Ironmen) are incensed over an offensive charging call against a Cyclone player with roughly a minute left in the game. Replays showed that the Ohio State defender should have been called for a blocking foul, and the Cyclones awarded the basket and a free throw with a chance to take a three or four point lead into the final minute. Many Cyclone fans are now crying into their beer about how "the refs cost us that game".

The problem with this mentality is that focusing on one call in isolation just because it happens in the last minute of the game ignores the first 39 minutes of the game. Although the call feels critical because the game is close to an end, the same call at any point in the game would have had the same impact—a three point swing in favor of Ohio State. Of course, Ohio State fans probably can point to a handful of calls earlier in the game that they disagreed with, calls which created the same or greater swing in favor of Iowa State (and truthfully, "bad" calls and no-calls tend to even out over the course of a full game). Further, events earlier in the game could have put Iowa State or Ohio State comfortably ahead, rendering any call in the final minute largely irrelevant to the outcome. Finally, focusing on that one call ignores the succeeding nearly full minute of play, during which: a) Ohio State missed the front end of a one-and-one followed by an immediate Iowa State rebound and turnover with the score still tied with 58 seconds left, b) Iowa State failed to secure a defensive rebound with 33 seconds remaining, and c) Iowa State failed to defend Ohio State's winning shot (though it was still a tough, clutch shot by Aaron Craft). [FN1].

If a team is in a position to lose a game because of a questionable or bad call in the final minute, chances are that team did something wrong in the first 39 minutes that put them in that position. The team may have taken poor shots, missed free throws, committed turnovers, failed to rebound effectively, or played poor defense. The coach may have failed to adjust his offensive or defensive sets to take advantage of the opponent's weaknesses, or failed to adjust his lineup to create the most favorable player matchups. A star player may have tried to force the action rather than running the offense, or committed a silly foul forcing the coach to bench him for a critical part of the game. A team playing its best basketball should rarely be in a close game in the closing minutes of a game. [FN2].

Referees obviously impact a game. But referees rarely "decide" a game, and when they do, it's usually because the style of game they call (loose or tight on fouls) favors one team or the other, not because they booted an isolated call or two. So although it's tempting to blame the refs for "losing" a game for your team because of one or two bad calls, odds are strong your team has only itself to blame.

[FN1].  In the interest of full disclosure, I refereed basketball at high school varsity level down to grade school games for roughly 18 years, including training and supervising college intramural referees during law school. In fact, back in the day, I wrote an op-ed in the college newspaper similar to this post. So I admittedly have a "pro-referee" bias.

[FN2].  In today's game, shooting from the field, free throws, and personal fouls were all essentially even between the teams. However, Iowa State committed 16 turnovers to Ohio State's 7, which probably had a much greater impact on the ultimate outcome than did the late block-charge call.


  1. Good post. Even the broadcast crew afterwards said that in real-time it was hard to see the foot and that it wasn't definitive that it was on the line(granted, part of the crew was Charles Barkley, who kept saying Iowa State was robbed). Also, they mentioned that it isn't a reviewable play. Referees aren't perfect, although a perceived blown call late in a close certainly is magnified.

  2. Does a more extended use of the replay have any place in college basketball?

  3. Take this for what it's worth...a comment from an Iowa Hawkeye fan who roots for ISU when they aren't playing my Hawkeyes.

    I won't say that the call by the referees cost the Cyclones the game, but even someone with an admitted pro-referee bias can admit that the importance of calls are magnified late in a close game. If that one call had gone ISU's way they would have had an upper hand in the game that could have proved decisive.

    In the case of the ISU-OSU call I would argue instead that Craft was late getting into position to take the charge (I know...judgment call). It looked to me like he slid into place after the ISU player had already left his feet for the layup regardless of whether his foot was on the line, hovering over the line, etc.

  4. @ JT88Keys: Check out the slow-mo replay here:

    Craft's left foot is down (establishing legal guarding position) before Clyburn's left (lead) foot leaves the ground. Clyburn then jumps forward into Cravft. So Craft is not "sliding under" Clyburn like many Cyclone fans claim. If this play occurred further out from the basket, it's a charge (though admittedly a very close, bang-bang play). But since this play occurred with the defender in the restricted area (barely), it should have been called a charge. However, there's no way the baseline official (the one making the call) can see Craft's heel over the line, and the backside trail official probably sees the floor instead of the line because of the heel lift. So, a very tough call to get right at game speed.

    As for late game calls being "magnified", that's a pure fallacy. Assume (purely hypothetically) that we went back over the game tape and found that Ohio St. had been jobbed on a net of four calls worth an expected value of 10 points in the first 39 minutes of the game. Did the Craft-Clyburn block-charge wrong call still "decide" the game any more than the other wrong calls?

    Or what about a block-charge early in the second half of a game involving two star players, each playing with 3 fouls. Get that call wrong, and the impact is enormous, lasting possibly for 10 minutes of game time. I think that call is more "magnified" than an isolated call in the last minute. At the very least, one call in the last minute is no more and no less significant than any call earlier in the game. Late calls just feel more signficant because of the dramatic tension of the conclusion of the game.* (And don't forget Iowa State had chances to win after that call, and blew those on their own without any help from the refs).

    I thought the game was pretty well-officiated. The game had good flow, there weren't excessive fouls keeping key players out of the game, fouls were even overall (and the Cyclones reached the bonus before the Buckeyes in the second half). In fact, the box score was about as even as I've ever seen--except for turnovers. Maybe if the Cyclones had kept the turnovers under 10, they would have held a 6-10 point lead heading into the final minute. But it isn't as much fun for fans to play the hypotehtical game with player errors. Nope, blame the refs.**

    *One possible exception is a shot at the buzzer: Was it in time? A 2 or a 3? But we have replay to answer those questions, usually rather definitively.

    ** That being said, I have seen some games where the refs had a huge impact on the outcome. But those situations are generally where the refs call an overly loose or overly tight game, which affects either star player(s) or a team's overall execution and game plan.

  5. @Memphis MOJO: Re more use of replay, I'm torn. Obviously we want calls to be correct. But basketball is very much a game of flow and momentum. Replay can kill that flow and give a team an advantage. Also, I can't see ever using replay for foul calls, which are pure judgment. But I do like replay for limited siutations, like in/out of bounds, and timing issues (essentially what it is used for at present).

  6. Right, don't kill the refs; that's too good for them.

    Without replay you must depend on human frailty and a healthy dose of normal bias. True of us all.

    As to your 39 minute premise, come on. Down to the wire games are what sports nuts love and an indication that the teams playing deserve the contest. So you don't blow the other guy out and thus deserve to be gutted?

  7. @ KenP: Over the course of this game, each team had ~90 offensive possessions. Can you really say that one bad call on one possession out of 180 "caused" the loss?

  8. @Michael M: You might want to rethink whether one bad call at the very near end of the game can cause a loss of the game. Of course a bad call can. And, it damn sure can cause the loss regardless of any and all previously made good and bad calls.

  9. Last night's Arizona vs OSU game demonstrated why you don't want instant replay. Refs stopping the game after Ross 3 was ridiculous as there was not a question that it was a 3 and Arizona effectively getting a free timeout so the officials could verify the clock should be at 2.2 seconds instead of 2 was ridonkulous.


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