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The officials are the problem

College basketball officials are ruining the product

Syndication: The Enquirer Albert Cesare/The Enquirer / USA TODAY NETWORK

What do you want out of a basketball game? Some excitement? A few great shots? Maybe a dunk or Nate Watson getting humiliated? At the end you probably want some sense that the better team won the game and that the outcome reflects what happened on the court. More and more frequently, that’s not what you are getting when you tune into a game. It, obviously, isn’t just happening to Xavier, but that’s where we’ll focus.

John Cahill assigns referees as the Supervisor of Officials for the Big East. What, exactly, that entails is hard to determine. Clearly, it doesn’t involve adding clarity to calls, making sure the men and women in his charge doing a good a job, or doing anything other than cashing what one assumes is a fat check.

Last night’s game is clearly the impetus for an article that has been written various times and in various forms over the years. To understand a bit more about how poor officiating changes games, you need only look at how Xavier tried to win the game when they had the chance last night.

Adam Kunkel had a great game for Xavier last night and it was rightfully him who took Xavier’s first shot to win the game. 90 seconds of game time earlier he had also had two shots in a possession. In both he fought off contact/grabbing either before the catch or on the drive. That contact wasn’t called. (I’m not immediately saying it should have been, just that it wasn’t.) That impacts what Kunkel can do with the ball. On his last attempt with 1:26 to play, he drove on Nate Watson and got slapped on the arm. Big Junk Kunk’s obvious disgust was only erased when Jack Nunge tipped the ball in.

Flash forward to seven seconds left when Kunkel once again had the ball isolated on Watson. (Credit to Coach Steele for consistently scheming his guys open last night.) Kunkel knew from what had just happened that if he drove and got hit he wouldn’t get the call. Further, Watson knew that as well. All Watson had to do was force Kunkel into a baseline drive where he would be able to body/slap him if he went middle. With both players knowing that, AK had to settle for a step back that came just short. Poor officiating had put him in that position and changed how the game flowed.

Then comes the small matter of the flagrant fouls. First off, and prepare for some block text, here is Rule 4.15.2.C (Italics and bold mine, misspelling of “official” NCAA’s.)

1. Flagrant 1 personal foul.

A flagrant 1 personal foul is a personal foul that is deemed excessive in nature (unwarranted or too much) and/or unnecessary (avoidable, uncalled for or not required by the circumstances of the play), but is not based solely on the severity of the act. Examples include, but are not limited to:

a) Causing excessive or unnecessary contact with an opponent;

b) Contact with an opponent that is not a legitimate attempt to play the ball or player;

c) Pushing or holding a player from behind to prevent a score. Depending on the severity of the contact and the potential for injury, this type of foul could rise to the level of a flagrant 2 foul;

d) Fouling a player clearly away from the ball who is not directly involved with the play, specifically designed to stop or keep the clock from starting;

e) Contact with a player making a throw-in;

f) Illegal contact caused by swinging of an elbow that is deemed excessive or unnecessary but does not rise to the level of a flagrant 2 personal foul (See Rule 4-18.7);

g) Illegal contact caused by a player hooking an opponent over or under the arm and which may lead the offcial to believe the contact was caused by the opponent. Depending on the nature of the contact, or the result of the contact, this foul could be considered a flagrant 2 foul; and

h) Contact with an opponent that is not the result of a normal basketball play. “Normal basketball play” is defined as any activity by a player, including incidental contact, which is generally accepted as that which occurs in a basketball game when the player is attempting to make a legal offensive or defensive play

That was a lot, but there it is for reference. If you have the game available on your mobile device right now, jump to 2:15 to play in the first overtime. Jack Nunge slips a screen and Adam Kunkel finds him with a beautiful pass. Al Durham, trailing the play first grabs Nunge near the wedding tackle, then on the left arm, then hooks an arm over Nunge’s right shoulder.

Multiple Xavier players immediately signal for an intentional foul, Durham looks defeated, and Steve Lappas immediately calls the flagrant “a pretty easy one.” No such luck. Jack Nunge makes both free throws but Xavier doesn’t get the ball. On the other end, a dreadful and one call lets Providence cut the lead back to two.

That clear violation of subsection c wasn’t even the only one in that overtime. On Xavier’s very next possession, Durham did it again, this time to Colby Jones. (Find 1:55 on your replay of the game.) It’s literally almost a replay as Durham again grabs the left arm of the driving player and throws his other arm over the shoulder. Once again, Xavier doesn’t get two shots and the ball because of a blown call that was easily reviewable.

Travis Steele’s vociferous protestations were met only by John Gaffney telling him he was about to get a technical. Durham did it because he knew he could, because the officials were failing at even the most simple premise of their job. Neither play was a legitimate attempt on the ball, both were “holding a player from behind to prevent a score.”

Finally, perhaps the most egregious call of all. Jack Nunge’s fifth came when he and Nate Watson got tangled up and stumbled together at the end of the second overtime. Even the most stilted of Xavier fans would have to admit it was a foul. Nunge had the misfortune of that contact leading the players to bumping Gaffney. Old, crotchety, out of shape, and now working well beyond what he had planned, Gaffney immediately signaled for a flagrant one. His reasoning behind that was that Nunge had, by rule, “specifically designed” to pick up his fifth foul on a dead ball 70 feet away from the inbounder. That is on its face stupid and mentions no further discussion.

Part of the issue is not just that John Gaffney sucks at his job and is an embarrassment to his family, but that he does his job too much. Where I work, and likely where you do, there are limits to how much work you can do in one time. No one can work more than 16 hours in a 24 hour period, for instance. Gaffney’s last day off was a week ago. In that time he had traveled 2,346 miles to end up at his 69th game of the year, just after 10PM EST, blowing a simple call happening right in front of him. Even a competent official would be exhausted and unable to concentrate after all that. Gaffney isn’t that on his best day.

Brent Hampton had traveled 1,812 miles in just three days to arrive at tip off time of his 55th game. Evon Burroughs had actually had a day off to travel the relatively paltry 254 miles he needed to tip off his 53rd game. This is an absurd amount of work and travel for people who are good at their jobs and, as these guys have demonstrated time and again, they start operating from a mental deficiency when it comes to making accurate decisions quickly.

Which brings us back to John Cahill, cashing that check from the Big East. He schedules what is easy for him and largely forgets it because, as is painfully obvious, he just can’t be arsed. Until Val Ackerman chooses to do something about the officiating structure, awful calls will continue to change the outcomes not just of Xavier games, but of potentially every game in the Big East. For a conference that claims to be one of the best in the nation, this situation is not tenable. Either the officials get fixed, or Atlantic 10 levels of prestige await.