After 60 minutes in which two great basketball teams left their blood, sweat, tears and other unknown bodily fluids on the court, in a game that both teams desperately needed (one to continue toward a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, the other just trying to get into the NCAA Tournament period), Syracuse and UConn-one of the great rivalries in the great sport of college basketball-came down to the final seconds, and was ultimately decided by...the whistle of a referee. Umm what?
I'm sure by now you've seen replays of any of the three or four controversial plays to close out the game, and if you haven't our good friends at Youtube would be happy to provide you the video evidence.
But for those of you who missed what was one of the most controversial plays (not to mention egregiously awful) in college basketball this season, let me give you a quick Reader's Digest breakdown of what happened.
Tied at 65 with under a minute to go, Syracuse has the ball. After a quick Andy Rautins miss, a long rebound gets tipped out to Syracuse point guard Scoop Jardine. After grabbing the ball, and with the opportunity to run out the clock and force a foul, Jardine instead decided to recklessly drive at the basket, completely out of control, almost like when you see a puppy without any real motor skills get too hyper and accidentally run into a wall or something. Anyway, Jardine's shot ends up being blocked, UConn recovers, and instantly, a whistle is blown.
Here were my thoughts when I heard the whistle:
First reaction: Oh...My...God. Please, please, please tell me there wasn't a foul called. Please!
Second reaction: (As both teams walk to their respective benches) Ok, UConn called the timeout, nice! We might actually win this game.
Third reaction: (After hearing Syracuse was the team who called the timeout) How can Syracuse call a timeout without possession of the ball? I mean isn't that pretty much the first rule you learn in CYO hoops when you're nine?
Of course by now you know what happened. The second that the long rebound went out to Jardine, and Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim saw him driving like a drunk stockcar racer toward the basket, the coach ran to referee John Cahill with his hands in the air pleading for a time out. Cahill, gave him the call, although he didn't actually blow his whistle to signal and acknowledge it until after the ball had already changed possessions in real time.
Regardless, the call stood. Syracuse retained possession, Wes Johnson ended up making two foul shots, and the Orange never lost the lead again. It wasn't the final dagger in a five point UConn loss, but it sure felt like it.
Now before we go any further, I want to make two points very clear:
1. If you're a Syracuse fan who may be reading this, please don't take this as just another bitter UConn fan who hates the world and all things Orange, blaming the refs for the loss. I'm not trying to claim there was any kind of conspiracy theory going on, or that the game was fixed. Because it wasn't.
2. If UConn doesn't end up in this year's NCAA Tournament, it won't be because of this loss. It will be because they blew winnable games against Providence, Marquette and Michigan, and didn't show up for others like Louisville a few weeks ago.
Those aren't the reasons I am writing. The reason I am writing is because this one particular game isn't an isolated event. The same crew was in the mix at the end of a controversial UConn-Cincinnati game, and Big East officials were also been in the midst of drama earlier in the year with the finish of Louisville-West Virginia. Not to mention that just the other day, in one of the conference's signature games- Villanova and Georgetown- the Hoyas somehow shot 50 free throws to 'Nova's 23, with Villanova getting called for 38 personal fouls in a 40 minute game. Yikes.
Again, this isn't just a whiny UConn fan pointing fingers after another loss in a season filled with them. I promise. The reason I am writing is because right now the officiating system we have in place is broken. And somebody needs to fix it.
Look, it'd be easy for me to rip Cahill here, but I have no interest in doing so. I have no personal vendetta against the guy, and quite frankly wouldn't want his job even if I was getting paid A-Rod money to do it. He spends 40 minutes every night, in front of somewhere between 10,000 and 30,000 screaming lunatics, paid to make a series of judgement calls that impacts not only the sanity of those people in the stands, but the jobs of the coaches on the sidelines. It's not easy.
But here's the thing I bet you didn't know about Cahill. According to FoxSports.com's Jeff Goodman, Monday night's game was Cahill's fifth in a row, in five different states. No seriously, look at this: Since last Saturday, he's gone from Rhode Island, to Indiana, to West Virginia and then Kentucky, and refed again last night in upstate New York. Are you kidding me?? My first thought when I saw Cahill's schedule was if Miramax or Paramount was going to make a sequel to "Up in the Air," only this time instead of George Clooney playing a hot-shot salesman, it'd be Michael Caine as a down and out Big East ref going from town to town by way of coach flight, bus, in the bed of pickup trucks and on dogsleds, trying to get to his 67th game in 70 nights. I actually had that thought. And don't tell me you wouldn't see that movie. Because I know you would.
Now, I know what you're thinking: Does this guy actually have a point? I'm getting to it.
Look at that schedule again, five states in five nights, eight games in the first 10 days of February and 65 games since the start of the season. You mean to tell me Cahill isn't exausted at this point in the year? You mean to tell me anybody wouldn't be by now? Yet we're letting him and others with similar workloads decide the outcomes of our most important games of the season? Come on. (And Cahill isn't alone, I made the same point about Tim Higgins last week).
This is the thing that really gets me though. The Big East considers itself the premiere conference in college basketball, and I don't think many of us disagree. Overall, it has the best coaches, teams, players and programs. Yes, there are good teams and coaches nationwide, but none that are as strong a group as the Big East. Just like we say the same thing about the SEC in football, Pac-10 in golf, whatever. The Big East is it in basketball.
And like the rest of college athletics, the Big East has turned itself into a brand, a Fortune 500 company in terms of college sports. The conference has a crazy TV contract (something in the neighborhood of $100 million dollars), an insanely profitable conference tournament that sells out Madison Square Garden for five days in a row (take that Donnie Walsh!), and some of the highest ticket prices and seat donation requirements of any schools in the country. It has great facilities, top-flight athletic directors and million dollar coaches.
The conference is a cash cow. A corporation in every sense of the word. Yet for all the resources and revenue that we as fans pump back into it, everything is first class except the referees (some of the most important people in the league), who have somehow gained second class status. I mean even the lowest guy on the totem pole in your office gets weekend's off, right? Well Cahill's game on Wednesday was his 32nd in 41 nights since the turn of the New Year. Wow.
Now I know what you're probably thinking at this point: Doesn't this happen in every conference in the country? Sure. But it doesn't make it right.
And besides, every conference in the country isn't the Big East. This isn't the Horizon League, the Metro Atlantic, or quite frankly any other conference. In those places, coaches and athletic directors aren't paid millions of dollars. People aren't hired and fired based on a few blows of the referee's whistle. Look, I love mid-major basketball, I do. But you can't tell me that the coach at Iona, Sacred Heart or San Francisco has the same pressures that Jay Wright, Jim Boeheim or Bob Huggins have. You just can't.
Because of this, it's time for change. It's time to let the Big East know that we as paying fans expect a better product coming out of their league office. If we are going to pay $30 for an individual game, a couple of hundred dollars for the Big East Tournament package, and thousands of dollars in donations, we expect the league to reciprocate by giving us the best product possible on the floor. And that starts with the guys calling the games.
Again, I want to reiterate that this isn't a personal knock on Cahill. He chooses to do six games a week, and the system allows him do so. But isn't it time to see a change that same system?
So as consumers of this product, the people who money in the pockets of the Big East, let's do something. Let's write e-mails to the league office, letters to the commissioner, forward on the video clips, this article and others to family and friends, whatever.
Remember the Big East is a corporation, and no other corporation would let the quality of its product suffer just to save a few bucks the way this product is suffering right now.
Honestly, I'm sick of watching these games, and wondering where the next bad call is going to come from. I'm tired of paying top dollar for a ticket to watch top-flight basketball, only to see it tainted by an overworked referee just trying to get out of the arena to get a few hours of sleep before he's got to catch his next plane, train or rented automobile.
I just want to enjoy watching basketball games again, without every game ending in a migraine and a 40 minute, explative filled call to my friends.
I just want change. And I bet you do too.