Coach's Corner

A glacial pace and overzealous refs are killing college basketball. Who's in charge here?

Well, I'll give the refs this: They can't be accused of favoring one team over another. Their collective whistles blew 27 times against Texas and 27 times against Oklahoma State. That, sportsfans, equals 54 referee-induced stoppages of play in a game intended to be played in 40 minutes. A glance at the handy calculator reveals that for every minute of clock time, 1.35 personal fouls were called. A game tipped at 8 o'clock gasped and staggered to an end at almost 10:30.

UT's Big 12 home opener against the Cowboys from Stillwater wasn't so much a game of basketball as it was a phlegmatic war of attrition. I checked every box score in the nation, and nowhere were as many fouls called as in Austin. Was it a rough game the refs needed to get under control? Maybe an old grudge match with much bad blood? Hardly. It was, in fact, a rather tentative game; neither team able to do anything except walk from one line to the other. As blind luck would have it, the Longhorn fouls were nicely distributed throughout its roster, while OSU's were more concentrated. Their best player -- and their last real chance at catching Texas -- tiny point guard Maurice Baker, was gone with five minutes (which took 25) left to play. Not one of Baker's fouls would have disturbed a gnat. In fact, there wasn't a single hard Gabe Muoneke foul to be found in the flotsam of ticky-tack touch fouls at midcourt, imagined blocks and charges, and imaginative infractions of every sort. I half-joked to my wife that this game might have to be finished by the coaching staffs, where I give Texas a big edge in youth but Eddie Sutton gets the edge in pure meanness.

She wasn't laughing. It wasn't funny. The crowd of 10,000 was as dead as Abraham Lincoln: beaten into submission by awful officiating and the dull spectacle of fast, talented athletes sullenly walking from one end of the court to the other to watch each other work on their free throws.

I've often wondered why more isn't made of another sport being wrecked, by well-meaning people, I suppose, who believe fans come out to watch referees blow whistles. Here are a few theories: I don't think coaches really understand. They get upset about bad calls against their teams. But they are, by and large, oblivious to the larger implications of the entertainment value of the sport. I don't think Eddie Sutton cares if the game takes five hours ... as long as he gets a win. It's why baseball managers can't understand the public's carping about the length of a baseball game. A coach goes to work, time passes. In the end the scoreboard shows a W or an L. That's all that matters.

The players likewise are not concerned with the notion of the game as entertainment. Like the coaches, their job is to win. The game probably flies by for the guys on the floor, no matter how long it takes to play. I'm sure, at some level, they understand this is supposed to be fun for the spectator, but they assume the game will take care of that. Which is, of course, the idea.

The media's another story. Maybe they're too jaded: After hundreds of games they've become desensitized to this issue. Fan enjoyment isn't a concern for a Statesman beat reporter. His job is the who, what, where, when, and how.

So it falls upon the fan to bear the brunt of awful, over-officiated games. Rick Barnes will chastise a "dead crowd" because he doesn't understand the full-body novocaine effect of constant stops and starts. Players get frustrated when we don't rise to their arm-waving pleas of louder support when we know with statistical certainty that it's impossible to play 35 seconds of defense without an official calling another inconsequential foul. Administrators don't care because they get boatloads of cash regardless of the incompetence or deluded self-importance of the idiots with the whistles. TV doesn't care because ratings are okay, and besides, every stroll down the court is more time to promote the Sunday movie. Nobody cares because everybody's making money. Life is good ... for now.

So I'm just a grouchy old fart, pissing into the breeze of progress, making a mess of my trousers in the process. Am I suggesting that because the refs did a lousy job on Saturday night the game's ruined? Of course not. However, from the depths of my heart I believe each of our major sports is in the process of killing itself. Baseball due to decades of administrative stupidity on a level impossible to collate, football and basketball from too many years in the whorehouse with television.

Pro basketball's been humbled into acknowledging some of the weaknesses of its game. College basketball, with its precious NCAA Tournament, brims with self-righteous smugness. The NCAA is actually encouraging referees to call more fouls. They believe the boys are playing too rough. Let's make the already glacial pace of the game even slower. That ought to fix it.

Here's a prediction: The XFL will succeed. Why? Because it's going to try to entertain the customer, a forgotton component whose loyalty and dollars have been taken for granted for far too long.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

UT, Rick Barnes, basketball, NCAA

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