Tourney spotlight remains on refs after Arizona's controversial win
Arizona beat Texas 70-69 to make the Sweet 16 after a debate-inducing finish
The post-game discussion centered on a non-call and a five-second violation
The first weekend of the NCAA tournament was defined by officials, not players
TULSA, Okla. -- After the final buzzer, they huddled one last time. Near the free-throw circle, Jim Burr, Richard Cartmell and Paul Janssen checked -- Anyone got a foul? Nope? -- and then, as Rick Barnes frantically called them over and Sean Miller waved them away, the officials trotted off the court. Game over -- debate just beginning.
Arizona 70, Texas 69 was a great game and a fantastic finish. Which in this NCAA tournament only means the postgame conversation was about the referees. (And with the referees, too, if we're counting the pool reporter who was sent to ask about two critical sequences in the final 12.3 seconds.)
"I just hope there's no controversy," Texas' Barnes said.
"I'd like to keep the focus on some things that we did well as a team that gave us the chance to win," said Arizona's Miller said after his Wildcats held off the Longhorns to move into the Sweet Sixteen.
So would we all. It would be great to discuss the clutch gene Derrick Williams clearly possesses, how he made up for a subpar performance by converting a three-point play to give Arizona the lead with 9.6 seconds remaining. Or to cover how his teammates took up the slack on a rare off night by their sophomore star. Or even how Texas' dysfunctional bunch almost came all the way back to win because of sophomore reserve J'Covan Brown's repeated drives into the lane -- foul, free throws, automatic points.
Instead, we're talking about Brown's final drive, and whether he was fouled as he threw up the last shot. And about Gary Johnson's rebound in the resulting scrum, and the collision between Johnson and Williams as the buzzer sounded. Also, we're pondering the five-second violation against Texas a few seconds earlier -- the whistle on that turnover, which provided Williams the opportunity for the winning shot, seemed to come after a very quick count.
Mostly, we're wondering when -- or if -- this tournament is going to shake loose from the guys in the striped shirts. We'll get back to Arizona-Texas in a moment, but the larger context is a part of this.
Before the tournament started, NCAA coordinator of officials John Adams told The New York Times, "We don't ever want to be the story."
But here we are, headed to the Sweet Sixteen, and everyone's still debating the finish in Butler's win over No. 1 Pittsburgh, and the two fouls called in the final 1.4 seconds. The fouls were so dumb -- and the calls so unexpected -- you half-wondered whether the wing joint in Indianapolis pushed the button last, leaving the guys in Pittsburgh angry with their bartender.
Joking aside, the debate rages on: Should the referees have swallowed their whistles when Butler's Shelvin Mack bumped Pitt's Gilbert Brown at midcourt? What about when Nasir Robinson fouled Matt Howard on a rebound of Brown's missed free throw?
"They were both fouls," Adams said during an interview Saturday with CBS. "They tie into two things we've been working on all year. We have a single point of emphasis, we enforce the rules as written."
In other words, a foul in the first minute is a foul in the final seconds. But we all know that's not always the case. For no-calls over the weekend, we had Kenneth Faried's last-second block of Mike Marra as time expired in Morehead State's second-round upset of Louisville. And also Williams' block of Wesley Witherspoon as Arizona escaped Memphis in the second round. Both blocks could have been fouls, or might have been clean -- but both Faried and Williams said afterward they were confident the officials wouldn't make a call.
Faried: "I've learned over the years that they don't call that foul."
Williams: "Late in the game most refs don't call that."
The point? Never mind Adams' point of emphasis, the only thing that seems consistent is the inconsistency. We had a microcosm in the final seconds of Arizona-Texas.
The Longhorns led 69-67 when Williams went up for a short jump shot over Texas' Tristan Thompson. There was contact but no call. Williams pleaded for a foul, which isn't unusual. But Miller also yammered loudly at Cartmell, who was the official beneath the basket and closest to the action.
Moments later, after a timeout, Cartmell whistled -- too quickly, if you're asking Texas and its fans -- a five-second count as the Longhorns tried to inbound the ball. Could it have been a makeup call? Yeah, we know, officially those do not exist. But we also know they do.
Here was Cartmell's explanation to pool reporter Tom Keegan of the Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World: "I had five seconds before the kid turned and signaled a timeout. I had to make a decision whether it was five seconds or a timeout and I made the decision it was five seconds because I had counted five seconds before he called timeout."
That's fine, but by the time Cartmell's answer had been printed and distributed in the press room, video of the call was on the Internet, where Longhorn fans will no doubt dissect it frame-by-frame. As Texas' Cory Joseph calls timeout, Cartmell's arm begins the fifth count -- and then he makes the call. Go ahead, click the link and make up your own mind.
Given another chance, Williams hit a layup as he was fouled by Jordan Hamilton -- Hamilton, it should be noted, said he didn't feel any contact -- and converted the free throw for the lead, setting up the final sequence. With time running out, Brown drove the lane, as he had so often before. Bumped by defender Kyle Fogg and bothered by Williams from the back side, he leapt and fired -- short.
Johnson grabbed the rebound beneath the basket. Williams grabbed him. The buzzer sounded before Johnson got a shot off. Burr, Cartmell and Janssen conferred. Then, as Barnes and several Longhorns pleaded their case, they left the court.
Burr, of course, was the official who made the no-call on Williams' block against Memphis. That's part of the backdrop to this finish, and so is the respected, veteran official's role in the Big East tournament blunder earlier this month, when the refs left the court before the final buzzer of the St. John's-Rutgers game.
Here's Cartmell's explanation of the final few seconds:
"We all had a look and didn't have a foul on the play. And the buzzer clearly went off before there was contact up high. So we checked with each other, none of us had a foul, there's no review involved, game over."
Cue the controversy.
Both coaches said all the right things about the difficult job officials have. But Barnes also said: "I'm telling you the truth," Barnes said. "I hope he got it right. That's what I hope. I really do. I hope he got it right."
He was referring specifically to the five-second count. But we all want them to get it right -- especially in a game's most critical sequences -- and we know they want to get it right, too. More than that, though, we wish the story could be about something other than the refs. Maybe next weekend.