Officiating: It's in the eye of the beholder

April 1, 2013 - 1:52am
No. 5 Louisville 82, No. 1 Baylor 81

Coaches for both combatants in Sunday's Sweet 16 upset of top-ranked Baylor by fifth-seeded upstart Louisville had a lot to say about the officiating -- both during the game, when they filled the referees' ears with reactions to virtually every call and non-call, cavorting on the sidelines until one coach was called for a technical that could have cost his team the game, and the other probably should have been -- and in the presser afterward.

Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey, who after the Bears' Jordan Madden was called for a charge on a critical play late in the game, tore her jacket halfway off in a fit of emotion and had to be restrained by her assistants who saved her from a technical, didn’t pull any punches.

“I think they were in such shock that it was a foul called,” Mulkey said of her team’s reaction when what the Baylor entourage thought was a clean block by Baylor's Brittney Griner of Monique Reid’s layup attempt was ruled a foul on a late whistle, sending Reid to the line where she netted the game winner with roughly two seconds to go. “I’ll be glad to answer any referee question you want to ask me, because I don’t mind getting fined, so ask me. Now is the time to ask me, OK?”

So Full Court asked Mulkey just what she thought of the officiating.

“I thought the game started out way too physical, way too physical,” Mulkey replied. “I thought that all three of [the referees], if they go past this round of officiating, it will be sad for the game. I thought the two critical calls at the end of the game were really bad. Jordan Madden drives in the paint. We already have the missed shot. She [the referee] calls an offensive foul on Madden right there. Well, why so late? Odyssey Sims had the rebound in her hand.

“Then I don’t know about that at the end,” Mulkey continued, referring to the foul call on Griner’s attempted block. “It was on the opposite end. I’d have to go see it.”

Mulkey then put it to a media referendum: “You saw it,” she said. “What did y’all think? Was it a foul? Did anybody here think it was a foul? Honestly –- tell me.”

When one reporter timidly responded that he did, indeed, think it was a foul, Mulkey continued her rant. “Okay. All I can tell you is the one in front of me, the charge, was critical. It was critical. I thought it got personal with both teams. When you allow it to be that physical, you have taunting. I thought [Shoni] Schimmel went and got in Griner’s face, and all they did was warn her. When Odyssey and Schimmel got into it right there [referring to a play in which Sims, apparently intentionally, bumped into Schimmel and the two were called for a double-technical after exchanging words with one another], it became a technical and a technical. What’s the difference? It got out of hand, and it got personal with players, and you don’t like to see that.”

But on Louisville’s side of the court, it looked like Baylor was getting the benefit of most of the calls. “I’m not sure what sometimes [the officials] were watching,” said Walz. “At one point in time, I mean, we’re up 20, and it’s 8-0 on fouls. We were driving at times and kicking; we still couldn’t get one called. … Three’s no question there were a lot of fouls called against us. I was just thankful on that last drive when Monique Reid went in for the layup –- it was a late whistle, but I was glad he caught it because she got clobbered.”

At the end of the day, the officiating, which seemed quite loose, to say the least, in the first half and then turned a bit ticky-tack in the second, seemed to have a greater adverse impact on Louisville than on Baylor. The Cardinals were called for 10 more personals (24) than the Bears (14).  Baylor also paid 10 more visits to the charity stripe (26), collecting 19 points, where as Louisville went to the line just 16 times for a total of 12 points. Additionally, no Baylor player fouled out of the game, while three Cardinals starters –- leading scorer Shoni Schimmel, Bria Smith who was disqualified late in the game on a charge call, and sophomore forward Sara Hammond who was heavily involved in helping on Griner -- fouled out of the game just as Baylor was making its comeback down the stretch. The loss of Schimmel was particularly vexing for Walz, as tape replays indicated that it was Sims who had initiated the exchange that led to the double-technical (Schimmel’s fourth personal) with unnecessary and apparently intentional physical contact to which Shimmel responded only verbally.

Two more Louisville starters -– Sheronne Vails, who had four fouls, and Antonita Slaughter, who was playing with three -– were hampered by fouls down the stretch. But then again, part of Louisville's game plan was to take Baylor star Brittney Griner out of her comfort zone:

"You know, we turned and boxed [Griner] out," said Walz. "We stood in front of her. We did a really nice job. I told Antonita [Slaughter, who drew the primary defensive assignment on Griner], 'Go under her elbows, go under her elbows. We tried to stay as vertical as we could without putting bodies on her. I mean, it's a game where if you let Brittney catch [the ball] wherever she wants to, she's going to score. When shots went up, we turned and boxed her out. When she got the ball, I told them, 'Straight up. Do not ever bat down on the ball, because I didn't want her to get to the free-throw line.'"

So one could argue that with so much focus on physically containing Griner, the Cardinals weren't quite as "straight up" as they thought they were and perhaps deserved to be called for more fouls than Baylor. (Indeed, in the anything-goes first half, the battle for position in the post would have sold well as championship wrestling!)

“I stood up for our players,” Walz said of his frequent remonstrations with the officials throughout the game. “I mean, I’ll have to watch Bria Smith’s charge there for her fifth foul. With all the contact going on both ends, how do you make that call? Shoni Schimmel’s fifth foul on the drive -– I’m dumbfounded.  Kids are getting knocked down and bringing it across with body contact; it’s not called. That’s fine, but I’m not just going to sit there and take it.”

Walz himself was whistled for a technical for leaving the coaching box. Afterward, in a possible jab at Mulkey, who got away with her jacket-stripping sidelines tantrum, Walz made light of the incident, joking that he might wear three jackets to Tuesday's game:

“That was on me," Walz said of what was recorded as a bench technical. "I was outside of the coaching box. I’ve learned, I’m better off if I wear a sport coat, because I can step out and rip that off and go halfway on the floor and you won’t get a technical. If you sit on the scorer’s table three feet outside the box, you’re going to get one.

"Even though my kid fouled out," Walz continued. "My whole thing was, 'Damn, she fouled out.' I sat on the scorer's table thinking, 'Who are we going to put in?' They [the referees] run across the floor and give me a 'T.' I haven't worn a sport coat all season, so I think I might wear three of them on Tuesday night. It's like that commercial, when you travel, I can run out, take one off, run back out, take a second one off -- it's okay."

Though Walz's remarks drew laughter in the press room, the technical, which cost Louisville two points and possession at a critical juncture in the game, would have been no laughing matter had the game turned out differently. At the time Walz was whistled for the T, Louisville had been clinging to a six-point lead, 78-72, with a few ticks over two minutes left to play. Sims drained both penalty shots for the technical, and then netted a jumper on the ensuing possession, for a costly, four-point swing that left it a two-point ball game just eight seconds later.

The calls and the noncalls brought the crowd to its feet repeatedly, with the much larger Baylor contingent getting the better of the booing match if such things were measured on a noise meter. But while one could take issue with several of the calls -- on both sides of the ball -- the biggest legitimate complaint is the inconsistency of the officiating within the game itself. While Mulkey might complain that the game was allowed to become too physical from the outset, many might argue that, especially at this time of the season, the refs ought to "let them play," and that Baylor, with its considerable size advantage, had the most to gain from a loosely called and physical game.

But whether a game is called strictly or loosely, if it is called consistently, the players have an opportunity to adjust accordingly. If the zebras start out with an "anything-goes" attitude, and then switch at the half to a "by-the-book" posture, that's much harder for players to adapt to. And it's harder still, when with one ref on the ball, a stumble over an opponent's extended foot in the midcourt is ruled a foul by the defender (or not called at all), but when another member of the crew is closer to the scene, is ruled a foul by the ball handler.

At the end of the day, however, this game -- if viewed as a whole -- wasn't won or lost due to officiating. Games rarely are. Baylor wouldn't have been in a position where the Madden charge or the Griner block/foul calls would have mattered had it not been for losing the three-point shooting contest to Louisville, 64 percent (16-of-25 for Louisville) to 35.3 percent (six-of-17 for Baylor) on plays in which little or no contact occurred. And the same would have been true had that final call gone the other way and Louisville suffered the one-point loss: Would the fifth foul on Schimmel or Smith have mattered had the Cardinals not allowed Baylor to rally back from a 19-point deficit?

As my colleague Clay Kallam once put it, "It's amazing how much the officiating improved when I became a sports writer and no longer had a stake in the outcome." Sunday's night's game certainly wasn't a hallmark moment for the referees, and it's more than a little bit troubling that this crew, like all of those officiating NCAA Tournament games, were selected to be there based on input from college coaches in each conference that is aimed at choosing the best of the best. Still, Baylor didn't lose, and Louisville didn't win, because of one call or another made (or not made) down the stretch.

Even if both calls in the final seconds -- the Madden charge and the Griner block/foul -- to which Mulkey takes exception were dead wrong, those two rulings can't be viewed in isolation from the officiating throughout the rest of the game. That includes the refs' suddenly stricter interpretation of the rules late in the game, which worked to Baylor's advantage in fueling its comeback, and the calls with which Walz so vehemently disagrees that put his key players on the bench.

It's one reason why I question the value of video replays, at least as they're currently administered. Sure, you want the officials to get it right -- and to correct themselves if there's opportunity to do so. But why, then limit the reviewable calls to only certain aspects of the game (e.g., whether a bucket was a two- versus a three-pointer being reviewable but shot-clock violations not), as opposed to looking at every call? For the very good reason that turning a basketball game into a four-hour affair in which the fans get to watch the officials repeatedly ponder the monitor instead of watching the players ball would have about the same appeal as watching paint dry. But elevating certain calls in certain time frames to reviewable status while allowing the rest of the game to proceed free of review seems like a poorly designed way of addressing that concern. Who cares if the officials are able to correct an erroneous turnover call in the final two minutes of a period, if five other erroneous calls earlier in the game went uncorrected? Is the outcome any more or less fair because one call, late in the game, was reviewed?

Perhaps it would be better if basketball adopted an expanded version of the football video-replay rules: Allow either coach to call for a video review of any play at any time. If they win their appeal, so be it. If the "ruling on the field stands," the team requesting the review forfeits a time-out, thereby deterring frivolous calls for video review.

That way, Mulkey can get her review of the Madden charge, and Walz can get his review of the Schimmel stumble, and there will be no need for ripping off jackets, ill-timed trips to the scorer's table or kvetching in the wake of close games -- or, for that matter, of fining coaches for having the temerity to point out what every fan of the game already knows -- i.e., that as the athleticism of the players and quality of the play improves, the quality of the officiating has a long way to go to keep pace.