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The anatomy of a blown call

Probably not unlike a lot of you, I hoped an evening of celebrating, a good night of sleep, and waking up to the promise of a full day of football would make me feel better this morning.

Alas, nearly 24 hours later, I still feel like someone kicked me in the stomach.

So, as part of my own personal healing process (and hopefully yours) I'm hoping to dissect what happened just a little bit. It's easy for us to feel screwed -- I mean, we're fans; that's our job. But the premise of this piece is this: Are we all just being a bunch of sad sack poor sports by complaining that we got jobbed? Is there any actual evidence to support that the officials, in fact, could have handled that incident differently?*

*By the way, I recognize that the Cougs are not blameless in all of this. Beyond the technical foul in question, they did not play well in the first half, allowing an inexcusable two points at the end of it; they did not rebound well, which proved to be their undoing in the second overtime; and Malcolm Armstead's final layup, which was more or less completely unimpeded from the moment he caught the ball, was an egregious defensive breakdown. But despite all of that, they did, for all intents and purposes, have the game won. That's why Grady and I are devoting ungodly amounts of space to this one play.

Let's start with this: Officiating is really hard. I have first-person experience as an official, umpiring high levels of slow-pitch softball for years, and my dad used to be a state tournament-level high school basketball official and then later was a referee evaluator, so I know a little about the pressures of officiating -- pressures which are magnified at the college athletics level.

I don't think most people have enough of an appreciation for just how difficult that job is. You are charged with knowing all of the rules in (as in the case of NCAA college basketball) a 182-page rule book and making decisions on those rules in a split second.

Those decisions have to take into account both the letter of the rule (Rule 10, Article 1, Sec. 1: "A player shall not hold, push, charge, trip or impede the progress of an opponent by extending arm(s), shoulder(s), hip(s) or knee(s) or by bending his or her own body into other than a normal position; nor use any unreasonably rough tactics") and the spirit of the rule in the particular game they are officiating (Is that pushing in the post a foul in the context of this game at this time? Is it "unreasonably rough?" ).

So, it's hard ... but not so hard that it can't be done well, and not so hard that we shouldn't expect it to be done with some modicum of professionalism. Like, you know, exercising some game management judgment at a critical time in a game and then not lying about what happened afterward.

But we'll get to that in a few moments.

First, let's examine the sequence of events in question. Here's the video (thanks, MLips!):

After seeing the replay several times, here's what I've been able to piece together:

  • Tajuan Porter makes yet another 3-pointer to tie the game at 58 with just under seven seconds remaining.
  • Klay Thompson receives the inbounds pass, drives the length of the floor, then lobs a pass into the post to DeAngelo Casto, who lays it in with 0.3 of a second remaining.
  • The entire bench jumps up in the air. No one comes immediately onto the floor.
  • The five Oregon players on the floor remain in play. All look to the bench. None seem to signal for timeout, but none rush to inbound the ball, either.
  • Casto runs to midcourt to celebrate. One WSU bench player -- I believe it was Anthony Brown -- runs to celebrate with Casto. Additionally, another person in street clothes also runs to celebrate with Casto. It's unclear to me whether this person was part of the WSU team or a fan. (It probably doesn't matter, as the referees' statement after the game implies he did not factor in their decision.)
  • At this point, the official on the Oregon side of the floor rushes back over halfcourt towards the celebration, blowing his whistle and motioning a technical foul call.
  • The ball still has not been given to Oregon to inbound, as all five players are still in the court of play and still staring at the bench.
  • A discussion between the officials ensues, during which they decide to assess a technical foul to the Washington State bench, and inform the coaches of said decision.

Let's establish whether the officials even made the correct call based on the letter of the rule. Without a doubt, there was a WSU player where he shouldn't have been. There are two rules which seem to apply here, both of which clearly result in the penalty of a Class B (non-unsportsmanlike) technical foul:

Rule 10, Section 2, Article 6

A team shall not have more than five players legally on the playing court to participate. PENALTY: Two free throws awarded to the offended team. The ball shall be put back in play at the point of interruption. PENALTY: (Art. 6 and 7) Penalized when discovered while rule is being violated.

Rule 10, Section 6, Article 2

A technical foul shall be assessed to the coach and all bench personnel for the following infractions:

           a. Entering the playing court unless done with permission of an official to attend to an injured player.

It's not really important which rule the referees were thinking of when they called the technical foul, since both result in the exact same penalty. (Although, from their explanation, it appears they were enforcing Section 6, Article 2.) Brown clearly violated both rules.

What's more important is the referees' reasoning for assessing the technical, as they clearly considered whether it was appropriate to assess a technical foul in this situation:

"We (called) a technical foul for bench personnel running onto the court during a live ball, without being beckoned onto the court," Mike Littlewood, the lead official, said afterward, going on to cite Rule 6, Section 1, article 4B, which states "The ball shall become live when… B. on a throw-in the ball is at the disposal of the thrower in and the official begins the throw-in count."

In other words, here's what he's saying: Oregon was ready to inbound the ball, the referee had begun his five count, and the Ducks could not do so because WSU's bench personnel were on the floor. Thus, a violation occurred that interfered with Oregon's ability to play the game, which is the spirit of the rules cited.

That call would be absolutely correct, and would be a call I absolutely would begrudgingly have to support, except ...


That's revisionist history on the part of the referees after the fact in an attempt to justify their call. None of Oregon's players had picked up the ball to try and inbound it before the referee had signaled for the technical foul. There was no "thrower." I suppose it's possible the referee under the basket could have started his five count within a few seconds after the shot going in, but when have you ever known an official to start his five count -- in that particular situation -- before the opposing team had picked up the ball to inbound it?

Basically, the referees blatantly lied after the game. (And that, in and of itself, should be a firing offense.)

Now, some might argue that despite the referees' stated reasoning for making the call, the end result was correct -- the letter of the rule calls for a technical foul to be assessed when any member of the bench personnel leaves the bench area without the permission of the officials. 

That would be a fair argument, if not for this: Two Oregon players left the bench area and ended up on the court after Malcolm Armstead's layup that would become the game-winning basket. A technical foul was not assessed at that time to the Ducks. Why? Because the referees said it was a dead-ball situation and not the same.

There's just one little problem with that: Rule 10, Section 6 makes no provision for whether the ball is live or dead.

You can draw one of two conclusions from their decision not to give Oregon a technical foul at the time of Armstead's layup:

  1. Between them, none of those three referees actually know the rules in question as well as they should. If that's the case, they should, at the very least, be suspended for a significant amount of time.
  2. They decided that the spirit of the rule is that only violations that interfere with the ability of the game to be played in a fair fashion should be enforced at such a critical juncture. This is the more likely explanation.

Believe it or not, there actually is precedent in the rulebook for the second view, what we might term looking to the spirit of the rule:

Rule 10, Section 2, Article 9

Team followers, as in Rule 4-27, commit an unsportsmanlike act, including, but not limited to, the following: Delaying the game by preventing the ball from being promptly made live or by preventing continuous play, such as but not limited to, followers entering the playing court before the player activity has been terminated. When the delay does not interfere with play, it shall be ignored. [Emphasis added]

Now, this rule refers to fans, and there's no doubt in the rulebook that a higher level of control is expected from the coach and his bench personnel -- the rulebook clearly states that the coach is responsible for his bench, so last night's bench technical called last night actually ended up on Ken Bone's ledger. However, the implication of Rule 10, Section 2, Article 9 is equally clear: The ultimate goal is to manage the contest so that it's fair to all contestants.

In other words, to borrow a common phrase: No harm, no foul.

It's a point further underscored by the rulebook's own statement about its primary purpose:

The primary goal of the rules is to maximize the safety and enjoyment of the student-athlete. Sportsmanship is a key part of that goal. Sportsmanship should be a core value in behavior of players and bench personnel, in crowd control by game management and in the officials’ proper enforcement of the rules governing related actions.

And there's the rub for me: Every rule should be carried out with this point of reference. Did the exuberant actions of an 18-year-old on the side of a team that had just made what it thought was the game-winning play at the end of overtime really constitute such an egregious act of unsportsmanlike conduct so as to warrant an indisputable administration of a technical foul with 0.3 of a second left and one team leading by two points? Was it so bad as to warrant the entire course of an overtime, conference game be changed by an administrative technical foul?

As we've already demonstrated, Oregon's ability to fairly win the contest was not being interfered with because the Ducks weren't prepared to inbound the ball anyway; could the referees not have exercised some judgment and given Bone just a few seconds to get his players back on the bench? One could argue that such a solution would have actually provided Oregon an advantage, given that I believe the Ducks actually were out of timeouts.

I believe no matter how you slice it, the referees committed the cardinal sin of officiating yesterday: They made themselves a part of the game. They helped decide the course of the outcome of the game with a judgment call they pretty clearly didn't have to make.

The better course of action would have been to recognize the gravity of the entire situation, give the Cougs a few moments to get their players back into the bench area, let the official under the basket hold onto the ball until order is restored, and give the ball to the Ducks and begin the five-second count once everyone is set.

If you're still not convinced that was the appropriate course of action, you're probably just a unreasonable Duck fan. Here's to hoping Larry Scott can view this with a clearer mind than those referees.

All of the rules referred to in this piece can be found in NCAA Basketball: 2009 Men's and Women's Rules.

You can follow us via Twitter @CougCenter and me @NussCoug.