One of the most noteworthy games this past week was the one that tipped off first. On Monday night, the Georgetown/Villanova game was surprisingly close and headed to overtime until official Bob Donato called a foul on Villanova with one tenth of a second remaining in the game. The foul was unsual because Georgetown had the ball in 'Nova's backcourt at the time. Iím not taking sides on whether the call was right or wrong, but those that choose to enhance their hoops-watching experience by talking about how the officials impact the game were given some fodder.
Every season, there are people that will claim officiating is worse than itís ever been. Even Bobby Knight cited the increasingly bad officiating as a contributing factor to his decision to leave the game. Itís a theme that canít be proven or disproven, but one that I suspect is false, much like other aspects of the game are supposedly as bad as theyíve ever been--for instance, free throw shooting, flopping and, the least provable, fundamentals.
I suspect the source of increasing criticism of how the game is called is the result of the explosion in television coverage of the game. Every call can be scrutinized, often in HD, which is a phenomenon that didnít exist 20 years ago. We just werenít aware of the quality of officiating back then. If I may disagree with Bobby Knight, among others, I suspect officiating, like the skill level of the players themselves, is better than itís ever been because of the increase in exposure. Officials have video of every mistake theyíve made, and should be learning more than they were before that was possible.
Iím not here to defend officials right now. Villanova fans donít want to hear it, having lost two games in which free throws were shot with less than a second on the clock (they lost a November game to N.C. State by a point when the Wolfpackís Gavin Grant made two free throws after being fouled on a three-pointer). My opinion of Villanova wouldnít change much if those points in both games were taken off the board, though I suspect the selection committee might feel a little differently. The fact is, we donít know if Mondayís call cost the Wildcats a win against Georgetown. Even if it did, Villanova would have been a tremendous long shot to get to nine wins in the Big East given its remaining schedule, and for all we know, the Wildcats would need ten wins to hear their name called on Selection Sunday.
The interesting thing is that both of Villanovaís heartbreaking losses were on the ESPN family of networks, and therefore received maximum exposure. The controversial calls were replayed on Sportscenter and repeatedly commented on during subsequent games on the many outlets of the Worldwide Leader. That exposure is an interesting part of the discussion, because while the calls that have gone against the Wildcats will probably just be cosmetic in terms of impactĖ-they wonít affect their postseason plansĖ-there was a call that was at least equally questionable that may allow a team on the bubble to nab one of the final at-large bids given out.
If you go by each playerís college class and consider how much each plays, the Florida Gators are the second-youngest team in the land. With that in mind, Billy Donovan put together a cushy schedule with few challenges. One can make the case that this was a sound strategy. Florida lost its two toughest non-conference games, to Florida State and Ohio State, while managing 13 wins against weak competition (with the exception of Temple). After that, the Gators jumped out to a 5-1 start in SEC play and appeared to be cruising to another NCAA bid.
But young teams donít tend to follow plans, and the Gators subsequently suffered double-digit losses to Arkansas and Tennessee on the road. Those werenít disgraceful, though. The stunner came on Wednesday, when Florida suffered a lopsided loss to LSU in Gainesville, dropping the Gators to 6-4 in an SEC that is the weakest of the power conferences. The Gators arenít cruising towards a bid anymore. Theyíre actually on a collision course with the committeeís fence. Itís easy to envision a scenario where they are either the last team out or in.
If they do slip into the 65-team field, itís worth remembering that the Gators didnít roll over every one of their weaker opponents in non-conference play. They benefited from a call that was equally controversial to what has occurred in Villanovaís two games. On December 15, Florida escaped with a three-point win against Georgia Southern. This was one of the most unusual games played this season. Florida would win despite shooting 27.4 percent. And yes, thatís in eFG terms. It stands as the lowest shooting percentage for a winning team this season (and last season, for that matter).
This is not a knock on how Florida won the game. Winning ugly is something I always admire. If teams can consistently win ugly (ahem, Wisconsin), then imagine what they can do when they play the game in a way everybody admires. What tarnished Floridaís win a bit was what happened on its second-to-last possession. With 36 seconds to go, in a game in which the Gators had made just 13 of their 51 field goal attempts, a foul was called away from the ball on GSUís Louis Graham. It was a foul that based on replays could have been described as a non-contact foul. It sent Nick Calathes to the line and fouled out Graham, the Eagles' best offensive player.
Itís unlikely the committee knows the circumstances surrounding that victory, and one could make the case that the circumstances are irrelevant. However, itís interesting that even in 2008 there are still things that happen to high-profile teams that slip under the radar. The events in the closing seconds of the Georgia Southern game are something to keep in the back of your mind as Florida finishes its season and tries to make an unlikely defense of its national title. What happened then could well make the difference between the Gators playing their postseason games in the NCAA Tournament or filling up the NIT bracket.
Ken Pomeroy is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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