Posted by Matt Norlander
Close doesn’t mean good. Dramatic doesn’t demand flawlessness.
The first weekend of the NCAA tournament proved those words true, once again. World, we swear: college basketball isn’t always so self-destructive. It was like bragging to your friends and family about the bright, talented girl you’ve been dating, only to have her show up with a busted lip, torn-about Guns ‘n’ Roses T-shirt and an unexplainable, newborn propensity to demolish everything in her path.
Our Game did not look all that strong over the weekend, even if the allure and charm of the NCAA tournament is infallible.
Why did all of this happen? It's not the officiating that bothered me, it was the sudden inability of a handful of players and teams to execute even the simplest of basketball tasks.
One after another, an unrelenting, depressing showcase of boneheaded basketball was put on display by men aged 18 to 21. Pittsburgh and Butler had an ending that’s unlikely to be duplicated, for no other reason than coaches, young and old, fifth-grade travel teams all the way up to the NBA, will forever spout the words, “Don’t pull a Pitt!” as players exit huddle just before the final free throws in a game.
There is an explanation for Shelvin Mack’s and Nasir Robinson’s fouls — you’re just not going to get it from anyone except those two. Many are calling the Pitt-Butler game one of the best in the history of the tournament. I have to cop for not seeing the entire game — I was busy filing this story as the two were on a collision course for collision — but any game that ends like that … an all-timer? Really? There was some serious tainting going on in the final two ticks. Unforgettable, sure, but among the best? Only in its unique act of dim-witted destruction puts it in the unrivaled folder.
I digress because, as unexplainable as the Panthers and Bulldogs were, North Carolina-Washington was chief among the dumberati. Not one, two or three, but four plays in the final minute of the game made the most casual of basketball viewers smack their faces in disbelief at what happened. First it was Venoy Overton trying to do his best impression of Tyus Edney; or Danny Ainge; or Scotty Reynolds. Overton attempted to go the length of the floor and give Washington a lead, choosing to ignore big-shot-hitter, teammate Isaiah Thomas, in the process.
Thomas proved, again, his value in the waning seconds eight days before. No matter to Overton, who was reinstated to the team after being forced to sit in street clothes and watch Thomas win a Pac-10 title on this shot .
On his way to a dream and the hoop, Overton met John Henson and Tyler Zeller. They form the wall you’ll never conquer, Mr. Overton. Swat. Goodbye. You’d think he would’ve learned his lesson. Huskies coach Lorenzo Romar, too. He’s a smart guy. Surely he’d tell his team to make sure Thomas got the ball, no matter what. A Kemba-like no-brainer.
Instead, Overton had the orange in his hands yet again as time wound down. Anticipating a reach-in foul from Kendall Marshall, Overton shot the ball. Since UNC was up three, fouling to prevent a game-tying trey is certainly in play. Only problem: Overton was 45 feet from the basket.
Off went the attempt. It wasn’t close. It was the worst shot taken out of fear since Roscoe Smith launched this rogue missile that harmlessly landed in some Longhorn fan’s lap. (That highlight will never, ever, not make me laugh, by the way.)
Overton was let off the hook by lank, long-armed Henson, who couldn’t squeeze the orange before it landed out of bounds. Then came a delayed whistle and Washington being jobbed five or six tenths of a second. And Thomas did finally get the final shot — one that was short, and one Henson almost goal-tended.
You know all this, of course, but I’m writing it and replaying it in my head because it’s that hard to believe it all actually happened. The other brain-locks still haunt me. Syracuse didn’t deserve its backcourt violation, but — gah! — Dion Waiters, why are not lofting that well into the backcourt? And Scoop Jardine, why aren’t you dropping back behind the time line, like a safety in a cover two? (People are right in saying, if Scoop didn't commit a backcourt violation, then he traveled, at the very least, emphasizing the greater point of this post.)
Texas was wronged. But, as Joe Posnanski properly pointed out almost immediately after that game ended, Jordan Hamilton’s timeout was one of the more offensive , unnecessary player-initiate stops in play to happen in college basketball’s history. Hamilton’s timeout meant Cory Joseph was mandated to be flatfooted on the inbounds pass. About 4.2 seconds later, a bad call puts Texas in the unfathomable position: on the verge of losing despite having the ball and two timeouts, 14 seconds and a two-point lead just seconds earlier.
Joseph I can’t — and won’t — blame. His internal clock was correct.
You can pin some of this on the zebras; the officiating wasn’t top-notch, but it never is. Lamenting the stripes is never going to change. Egregious mistakes on the biggest stage will call for John Adams, and whoever replaces him, and whoever replaces the next guy, to be plopped in front of a camera to apologize or defend a certain call.
But officials are human, and they’ll make human errors. Fans will always overreact to the calls they make. Outcomes of games have ten times as much human error on the part of the players as they do the men judging and keeping said players in check with the high-pitched tweet of a Fox40.
It’s unfortunate the first weekend of the 2011 NCAA tournament will be remembered more so for the Big East’s anemia, players’ plight and a Twitter-spawned referendum on the state of refereeing. But that’s the way it will be.
Now, we look forward. All I ask for with the next set of games is some composure down the stretch. That’s a lot to ask, I suppose. After all, these are still just kids — grown bodies, sure, but … kids. Get in a locker room after a win or a loss and you’ll surely agree.
So with each line that’s crawled to in the bracket, an inverse amount of pressure is applied. Asking for flawless play is dumb. I’m not doing that. I’d just like these ballers to remember and adapt to the habits they’ve been instilled with for the past 10 years or so. I know these aren't professionals; I'm just amazed at how often we had some goof-ups late in games. This is outlier behavior, to be certain.There are more smart, capable players than not. This is Division-I basketball! It’s the Big Dance! It ain’t intramurals!
So let’s get back to clutch, competent play in the closing minutes and seconds of tournament games. And if the officials can stay out of the way and avoid making the bad call, then what a world that would be.
But let’s take what we can get, hopefully reminding the greater public how good college basketball can be when pressure's the tightest and attention the hottest.
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