Hoop Cheese: Are ACC referees really that bad; superior underdog mentalities and more



Referees who were not involved in N.C. State's loss to Duke Thursday night.
It's been about 21 hours since the valiant dreams of the N.C. State Wolfpack were snuffed out pitilessly by referees under the spell of the legendary charm of Michael William Krzyzewski.

Honestly, we're still sifting through the rubble here at Triangle Offense.

Our friend, co-worker and co-spectator Bob Geary is usually too busy with real journalism and tracking the movements of redistricted Democrats to tell us the awesome things he knows about basketball, but even he had to send a note so full of lividity, this computer is shaking:

State fans are pretty steamed—there's talk of leaving the ACC, or rather, the ACC left us.

UNC-Duke are everything now. Time to look at the SEC or Big "East"??

The officiating in the ACC is horrendous, has been for a long time. It isn't just anti-State, it's anti-road team combined with random ticky-tack fouls by guys who can't run with the players or see what's happening.

We were going to write a little bit about Jeremy Lin this week, but we'll save our deepest, most original thoughts about the meaning of this February phenomenon for another edition.

Instead, and after the jump, Neil Morris stops writing about soccer long enough to take up the banner of crying foul over the treatment of N.C. State's basketball team and the remotest possibility that the ACC's referees are intimidated by the screaming lunatics teachers on the sidelines. (Perhaps it serves those Raleigh kids right: Didn't anyone tell them of Durham's reputation for depravity and crime? "Never go to Durham," generations of Raleigh real estate agents have told new arrivals to the state.)

After Neil, we'll move to a few things that were learned by Adam Sobsey, Rob Harrington and Mike Potter.

Yes, the refereeing in the ACC is unfair.
As the postmortem of N.C. State’s collapse in Durham last night (or Duke’s epic comeback, depending on your viewpoint and allegiances) continues in the laboratory of cyberspace, two specimens are drawing particular interest: depth and fouls.

The former is not a new ailment diagnosed for N.C. State, including by this writer. At the risk of mixing metaphors, it is the albatross hanging round the Wolfpack’s collective neck all season, and a predicament that amplifies the latter problem: State’s limited rotation simply does not allow them to absorb the foul difficulties its starters—especially Richard Howell and C.J. Leslie—routinely finds themselves in.

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski says last night’s result “didn’t have anything to do with foul trouble.” On its face, the comment is risible. Three Wolfpack starters fouled out, while only two Duke players accumulated as many of four fouls each: Tyler Thornton (zero points) and Ryan Kelly (didn’t start). Foul trouble limited the minutes of State’s few regulars, and foul trouble inhibited their defensive tenacity that flourished in the first half and evaporated during the climactic minutes of truth.

On the other hand, Krzyzewski’s observation is predicated on other motives and experience. He refuses to concede that factors beyond the skill and heart of his boys had any appreciable impact on the game’s ultimate outcome, a laudable aim. Moreover, he might point to the raw foul totals: N.C. State was whistled for 24 personal fouls, while Duke collected 21.

So, what is “foul trouble?” Krzyzewski is implicitly saying that it’s the ability to not only avoid committing those fouls but to adapt to game circumstances when more fouls are being called on you and your team than you believe fair or just. Last night, State’s fouls were spread over eight players; Duke’s were spread over nine (not counting Michael Gbinije, who only appeared for one minute). The problem, of course, is that 15 of State’s 21 fouls were committed by three starters.

There’s one other unspoken factor at play. In life, status, experience and relationships enable seasoned professionals to do and say things that newbies cannot get away with. Those elders have “earned their stripes,” and, moreover, possess the heft to bring trouble onto anyone who treats them unfairly or does not pay them the deference they believe they deserve.

If Duke or North Carolina players never seem to foul out (as their critics often hysterically declare), it might be because they know how to avoid disqualification. Or, it might be because those teams have the depth to rotate in other skilled players without a dramatic drop-off in talent.

Or, it might—ever so slightly—be because many referees will (sub)consciously avoid overly punishing teams led by coaches they are familiar with and who have “earned their stripes,” even in the face of invective and other sideline histrionics. Mike Krzyzewski is in his 32nd season coaching the Blue Devils; Roy Williams is in his ninth season at UNC after spending 15 years at Kansas and a decade as an assistant coach under Dean Smith before that.

Gary Williams—whose profane rants were legendary—was ejected twice in his 22-year career at Maryland. It took his successor, Mark Turgeon, less than a season to earn his first ACC ejection for some excessive curse words hurled at referee Larry Rose.

While blessed with more than 15 years of head coaching experience, Mark Gottfried is in his first season as a coach in the ACC... and its referees. His arm-waving, jacket-flinging gyrations motivate players and a fan base long in need of such fighting spirit. However, they have also run afoul of several officials, notably a couple of public dust-ups with referee Roger Ayers.

Let me be clear: This is not blame attributable to any coach, referee or player; it is a matter of human nature. Once Gottfried earns his ACC bona fides, he will undoubtedly be afforded the same courtesy as the league’s older heads. Until then, questionable hand-checking and over-the-back calls may still befall a team ill-equipped to absorb them. —Neil Morris

Duke shouldn't get too comfortable coming from behind.
To me, the item of the most interest following Duke's comeback win over N.C. State was the Blue Devils' comfort level playing from behind. Krzyzewski has always played the underdog card, a sort of aggrieved, chip-on-shoulder immigrant ambitiousness, belying the very obvious fact that his teams are almost always full of blue-chip talent that should, in any given season, be expected to advance well into the NCAA Tournament. This year, his team appears to make itself an actual underdog, situationally, in many of its games. There's been a lot of general wondering and even complaining this year, among Cameron media room denizens, about the "identity" of this team, and a fair amount of sotto voce Rivers-bashing (as there was at halftime last night), but and I think we're now seeing that this team does have a persona and that persona is provided by, unsurprisingly, Austin Rivers: Duke is young in some ways, seasoned in others (Rivers may be a freshman, but he's played in elite milieux his whole life), prone to mistakes and complacency, arrogant, talented but flawed, given to selfishness, able to take over a game at any given moment (it seems), and above all extremely mercurial—a shift away from the steady, all-in-this-together, five-fingers-is-a-fist character that Duke teams have tended to show under Krzyzewski.

They remind me, not in terms of personnel but in the way they play, of last year's North Carolina team circa the ACC Tournament. The Tar Heels, like the current Blue Devils rather young, dug themselves double-digit deficits in three consecutive tournament games. They managed to win the first two, but came out stumbling again in the final against Duke and, this time, never really rallied to get back into the game. If you want to extract a lesson or moral from that, it's simply that you can't keep putting yourself in a hole and expect to dig out every time. (Don't forget, despite rallying against Miami, Duke lost that game in overtime.) Duke is 22-4 right now—which to me is an overachievement given the roster, it youth and its awkward composition—and there is talk of them getting a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. But in order to justify a top-dog seed—which perhaps they'd almost prefer not to have, given the loosey-goosey, up-from-under way they like to play—they'll have to learn to impose themselves on games before the second half starts. Mystique and mercury can help you pull off a shocker against your arch rival in Chapel Hill, or exploit N.C. State's little-brother inferiority complex before 9,300 screaming fans at Cameron, but the unblinking neutrality of an NCAA Regional venue, against some hungry, talented team that only knows Duke as that school everybody hates, is a different story.

Recommended reading? Nothing basketball-related at the moment, but since we're on the subject of tall people who thrive on thinking that the whole world is arrayed against them, I'm reminded that one of the more fascinating (and bizarre) pieces of journalism I've read in a while is this year-old Vanity Fair article about the very, very weird world of paranoid Randy Quaid and his wondrously wild wife. Quick change, indeed. —Adam Sobsey

One good thing about ACC expansion? Clemson doesn't come to Chapel Hill every year.
Should a rational person entertain the idea that Clemson will win in Chapel Hill this weekend? The Tigers have sent 55 teams to UNC and every one of them returned home one with a loss. It's one of the flukiest, least relevant streaks in sports, but you'd think Clemson would get tired of hearing about it and decide to win one of these years.

Dean Smith frequently expressed his annoyance. During his era the Tigers played at Carolina every season, and each year would being the same questions from the same reporters slogging through a story that, at the risk of putting too fine a point on it, most of the country doesn't give a shit about. These days, conference realignment means that the Tigers and Heels sometimes play only once per season, without the previous guaranteed home-and-home format.

Clemson has had its chances. The Tigers stared down the horrible, Matt Doherty-led Tar Heels in 2002 but came up empty. Worse, they enjoyed an 11-point lead with three minutes remaining in 2008, but Tyler Hansbrough scored 39 points and led Carolina to a double-overtime victory.

And those Tigers were better than this year's version. Clemson has won two straight games but prior to that dropped six of eight versus ACC competition. The Tigers are just 1-4 on the road against conference foes, and now they go to the place they lose most. It's going to happen eventually—just probably not this year. —Rob Harrington

Duke women are cruising, but UNC and N.C. State clash Sunday in game both need to win.
It seems that things can simultaneously change and stay the same in the world of the Triangle’s ACC women’s basketball teams, and that remained true this week.

UNC won a game it absolutely had to win, N.C. State didn’t win a game it needed to win and Duke just kept on winning.

So the status didn’t really change.

Duke (22-3, 13-0)—which suffered a tough injury loss when sophomore forward Richa Jackson went down with a torn ACL in Wednesday’s easy win against Virginia Tech—remains on track to get the No. 1 seed in the NCAA’s Raleigh Regional if the Blue Devils can win six more in a row.

But the path isn’t easy. Duke will have to play at the absolute top of its game to win on Sunday and sweep the season series at No. 8 Maryland, and won’t likely face another team with a losing record.

UNC (18-8, 8-5), which lost its Top 25 ranking for the first time Monday after three straight losses to ranked teams, got a road win at Florida State Wednesday night and improved to 15-1 against teams that aren’t likely going to the NCAA Tournament.

That makes Sunday’s home game against arch-rival N.C. State (15-12, 4-9) all the more important, since if the Tar Heels can win that one they will become mortal locks to be in those NCAA first- and second-round games in the NCAA Tournament March 17—19.

Mortal locks, that is, unless you believe they could lose to a last-place Boston College team in the 11 a.m. opening game of the first round of the ACC Tournament in front of 11,000 screaming local school children that won’t be rooting for the Eagles.

The NCAA path for N.C. State (15-12, 4-9) is pretty straightforward. Win five more games including at least two at the ACC Tournament. Or just win four in four days at the ACC Tournament. An upset of the Tar Heels, who won the earlier meeting 60-50 on Jan. 22 in Raleigh, would seem to be a key ingredient in the five-game plan.

Otherwise for State, it absolutely must beat Boston College on the road Thursday night to lock up a WNIT spot and salvage something from a tough season. —Mike Potter

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