The trouble with officiating is that it varies more than actual basketball performance does.
In their regional final against Ohio State in Boston on Saturday, Syracuse was called for 29 personal fouls in a 69-possession game. Of all the games the Orange played during the Big East regular season, at Madison Square Garden for the Big East tournament, and in the NCAA tournament, the game against the Buckeyes represented the team’s season-high for number of fouls per possession. By far.
The day the Orange got their hack on
Syracuse 2012, highest fouls-per-possession
Conference play, Big East tournament, and NCAA tournament only
vs. Ohio St., March 24 0.42
@ Notre Dame, Jan 21 0.34
@ Providence, Jan 4 0.32
It’s entirely possible, of course, that Jim Boeheim’s team really did deserve more foul calls on Saturday than they did in any other game during the year. By definition there has to be an outing at some point in the season where a team’s at its hackiest, and there’s no law that says that game won’t be the last one a team plays in a given year.
Besides, even a team that plays zone does indeed have foul-prone players. Every team does. Rakeem Christmas fouled out in just 16 minutes in the game the Orange played at Providence in early January. Lastly, Syracuse’s final foul total on Saturday was inflated by deliberate hacks in the last minute as they tried to extend the game.
All true enough, but we’ve seen Christmas get minutes before, and we’ve even seen end-of-game fouling from a desperate Cuse team (against Cincinnati in the Big East tournament). The one thing we haven’t seen is a foul rate this egregious.
In games played on or after December 28 leading into the regional final on Saturday, Syracuse logged 1,540 possessions of basketball, during which time their performance was officiated by 34 different refs. Among those 34 officials a rough consensus emerged from hundreds of split-second decisions over thousands of possessions: Syracuse will, on average, commit a foul on about one in every four possessions.
On Saturday the Orange’s fouling jumped to closer to one in every two possessions. Was their actual basketball performance really three standard deviations more hacky than what they’d done all year?
I’m not saying the refs changed the outcome of the game. Actually they were more or less equally capricious with both teams. Until Syracuse started fouling to extend the contest, the numbers for free throws shot by the Buckeyes and the Orange were similar. Jared Sullinger took a seat with 13:42 remaining in the first half and didn’t come back on the floor until after intermission. Aaron Craft fouled out for just the second time in 38 games.
I am saying the refs ruined what in all likelihood would have been a fantastic Elite Eight game. Don’t hate the refs, hate the rules. We’ve reached the point where officiating a basketball game is like judging a figure-skating competition. Fouls need to be redefined, and in particular we have to get away from this idea that a defensive player can demand the action be stopped and a foul be called one way or the other by flopping anytime he chooses.
When a game’s being officiously over-officiated, announcers like to say “the players have to adjust.” But until the sport’s potential for free-floating intrusive caprice is reigned in, the truth is we’ll always be at risk for another Ohio State-Syracuse.