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THE INSIDE TRACK | SECOND THOUGHTS

In the Interest of Fairness, Duke Needs to Take a Foul

April 09, 2001|CHRIS DUFRESNE

Oh, for the love of . . . Duke?

It has been a week since Duke won the national title and Maryland and Arizona fans are still crying foul.

Let's see, there was the one not called on Jason Williams against Jason Gardner, the one not called on Shane Battier against Gardner, and the one that was called against Maryland center Lonny Baxter in the national semifinals.

Duke was leading Maryland, 84-79, with three minutes to play. Baxter, without the ball, was backing down Carlos Boozer in the low post.

Baxter and Boozer each had four fouls when that lonesome whistle blew.

Thanks for playing . . . Baxter.

Maryland Coach Gary Williams blew off the bench, pounded his fist on the scorer's table and screamed words to the effect of, "Is this how badly you want Duke to win?"

First, a 20-second timeout for some record straightening.

Did Duke deserve to win the national title?

Yes.

Did Maryland, not the refs, blow a 22-point first-half lead against Duke?

Yes.

Did the Arizona guards, not the refs, go 0 for 12 from behind the three-point arc?

Yes.

Did Duke get preferential treatment from the officials?

Sure looked that way.

Was there an orchestrated plot, hatched by CBS, the NCAA, pep-squad leader Dick Vitale, to make sure the Dookies cut down the nets?

Highly doubtful.

The lean toward Duke was more a combination of poor officiating and human nature.

The Final Four turned out to be Hank Nichols' worst nightmare, because the last thing the NCAA's coordinator of men's officiating wanted to hear was a conspiracy rap.

Tough luck. Nichols got an earful.

Maryland and Arizona zealots pored over the game tape like it was the Zapruder film. They left no Oliver Stone unturned.

When reached by phone last week, Nichols admitted the fifth foul call on Baxter was "unfortunate."

Problem: the Baxter outrage spilled over into Monday night's title game, and the anti-Duke legions at the Metrodome became uncorked with 9:12 left in the first half when Williams, already saddled with two fouls, landed on the back of Arizona's Gardner in a scramble for the ball near midcourt.

Nine times out of 10 that's a foul, but this time the refs let it go.

"You talk to a lot of basketball people and they say that's a great noncall," Nichols said. "You talk to others and they said it should have been called a foul."

Might a third foul on Williams have had an impact on the outcome?

Might the Duke coach's last name be loaded with consonants?

The howls grew deafening in the second half when Gardner drove to the basket and was knocked to the ground by either a) inertia; b) Newton's Law; or c) Battier's upper torso.

No whistle.

It's interesting to note that Battier played all 80 minutes in the Final Four and picked up four fouls--an average of one a half.

Now, was that because the refs were protecting Duke's interests or because Battier is a three-time national defensive player of the year?

Two thoughts:

First, we expected more from Nichols' hand-picked officials, awarded the plum Final Four assignment based on tournament merit.

"I was disappointed we didn't referee every game really well," Nichols said. "There were calls that were wrong, but that's no different than any game I've seen. It happens. But when you get on a major stage, it takes on major significance."

Second, officials are biased. They don't work or live in a vacuum.

If they can't be influenced, how come coaches spend 40 minutes a game bending their ears?

Not to get a call reversed, but to get the next call.

Duke gets the benefit of the doubt because it is a fundamentally sound team with respected and respectful players and coaches.

Don't kid yourselves: great teams and players always have received preferential treatment.

Check out Michael Jordan's last shot, the one that clinched his sixth NBA title, and see if he did not push off on his defender.

Magic Johnson all but called his own foul shots in critical stretch drives down the lane.

There long has been an unspoken subtext to officiating. You know it, I know it and Nichols knows it.

Because of his reputation as a control pitcher, Atlanta Brave ace Greg Maddux gets strike calls off the outside corner that Nolan Ryan couldn't get in his dreams.

Half the time, it seems, eagle-eye San Diego Padre star Tony Gywnn lets the umpire know whether a pitch was a ball or strike.

And how many times have you watched an NBA game in which a foul underneath the basket goes not against the superstar with five fouls, but to the nearest wide-eyed rookie with fouls to give?

Nichols says referees don't pay attention to names and numbers.

"They don't care who wins, I'm telling you," said Nichols, a referee for 20 years.

Not consciously, perhaps.

But officials know the score. They know the good guys from the bad guys and, in coaching, the winners from the whiners.

Referees appreciate superior play and sportsmanship. Subconsciously, you could argue, they want star players in the game at the end.

Battier is right when he says the cry of Duke favoritism is more a byproduct of success.

"That's just the ultimate sign of respect," Battier said. "You hear about it all the time with good teams. The Yankees, Cowboys, great teams in any sport."

They say it's good to be king.

These days, it's better to be Duke.

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