"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.