Whistle-rama slows a fluid game

A big fuss was made this year at the Winter Olympics about the subjectivity of figure-skating judges. How can a group of individuals pick the winner of a sport, critics asked? Isn't it better to determine a champion by a final point tally?

It was a somewhat valid point – and led to the awarding of gold medals to both the Canadian and Russian pairs.

But left out of the argument was the fact that nearly every sport has human referees, who often play a heavy hand in the outcome of a contest, especially when two teams are nearly even in ability.

Last week, that was evident in the NCAA men's college basketball tournament. In one game, Missouri vs. Oklahoma, an astounding 53 fouls were called – in a 40-minute game. The players were visibly confused on defense because the slightest contact with an opponent would set off a whistle. There was no rhythm to the game, and it became a free-throw-shooting contest.

The next day, when Maryland played Connecticut, it was more of the same – 46 fouls – to the point that nearly every player in each team's rotation had to spend time on the bench so he wouldn't foul out of the game.

Of course, a referee has to keep the game clean. But when there is more than a foul per minute, something is out of whack. At least a dozen calls in each game were questionable "touch fouls," in which the referee could have just as easily not blown his whistle.

This kind of game often favors the more established, higher-ranked team, which receives the benefit of doubt from officials (and Oklahoma and Maryland, the higher seeds, did win).

In the women's game, by contrast, far fewer fouls are called – at least that was the case in the Round of 8. The men averaged 41.75 fouls per game, the women 32.5 (and yes, the women do play aggressively and do push the ball inside, where fouls are more likely to be called). The result: The women's games had better flow, with more up-and-down action.

Bill Topp, who is the basketball editor for Referee magazine, scoffed at the idea that refs were exerting too much control over the game and not letting the players play. "In an ideal game, there wouldn't be too many calls," he says. "Most fouls are called when teams don't shoot the ball well from the field."

The good news is that the officiating should get better this Saturday and Monday nights for the Final Four games. The referees are graded by independent NCAA observers, and the best ones advance to the next round. "By the time you get to the Final Four, these are refs who all are having a good tournament," Topp says.

When Duke won the NCAA basketball championship last year, its team was loaded with talent. Jason Williams, then a sophomore, was already considered the best player in the country. Chris Duhon, Carlos Boozer, Nate James, and Mike Dunleavy were a solid supporting cast. But what really separated that winning team from the rest of the field – and for that matter from this year's Duke team that lost to Indiana in the Sweet 16 – was Shane Battier. Battier was a leader, a proven winner, and a clutch performer. He also happened to have been the rarest of commodities in college basketball: a senior.

That's worth remembering this weekend in Atlanta. While Indiana is an underdog with only an outside shot of being the last team standing, the three other teams – Maryland, Kansas, and Oklahoma – are almost dead even in the amount of talent they put on the floor. All three teams have strong, athletic frontcourts that can score, defend, run the court, and intimidate on the inside. Each has a solid backcourt, with guards who can shoot, pass, and handle the ball. Though none of the coaches has the experience of winning a national title, each is a proven motivator.

So what will distinguish them? Who will cut down the nets on Monday night? It could be the Shane Battier factor – seniors who have been there, done that.

If so, Maryland would have to be considered the favorite, with three seniors in its starting lineup, all of whom were a part of last year's Final Four team: center Lonny Baxter, shooting guard Juan Dixon, and small forward Byron Mouton.

"You can't replace what they give the team in addition to basketball ability," Maryland coach Gary Williams said of his seniors this week at a press conference.

That's not to say, however, that Kansas and Oklahoma don't have senior leadership. Kansas has guard Jeff Boschee in its starting lineup, and Oklahoma has big-man Aaron McGhee, a senior who can score from virtually anywhere on the court. Although not a senior, Oklahoma also has baby-faced guard Hollis Price, who plays like a veteran. And Kansas has a leader in junior Kirk Hinrich, whose father is a high school coach.

But, Maryland simply has more. Part of the reason is that the Terps have been able to recruit and sign players who are not good enough to jump to the NBA after one or two seasons, but who develop over a four- or five-year period.

"I always like to have players in my program who keep getting better," Williams says. "The key is having guys who are hungry and want to keep improving."

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