Throughout the Minnesota game I kept having déjà vu. My mind went back to countless moments (during the Collier and Sadler eras in particular) when our under-manned, out-talented team would try to scratch and claw its way to a victory over a vastly more talented opponent. I remember being exasperated in the bleachers at the Devaney, wondering how we were the only team that seemed to never be able to buy a call at home. I’ve seen that game in person no less than 50 times. But now I’ve finally seen it from the other side—through the lens of a fan of the talented road team.
As the can’t-catch-a-break home team fan, that game feels like highway robbery. I’m sure the Gopher faithful left that game thinking the game was called unfairly (and at home no less!). Many of them likely uttered some variation of “Man, if only the calls went both ways, we totally would have won.” But as a fan of the athletic and talented road team, watching from the comfort of my couch, I finally have come to appreciate just how tough it is to officiate that game fairly. Because the reality is you can’t “call it both ways.” Why? Because the teams aren’t committing the same types of fouls.
Our team was quicker. More explosive. Proactive. And when there was contact, it was usually because our guys had put themselves in position to make a play and they did. The result is that the refs didn’t blow their whistle on anticipation fouls. Or in other words, they assumed our guys were athletic enough to make a clean play on the ball, unless their eyes told them otherwise. A perfect example of this is when Copeland went straight up to misdirect the final shot of the game, the Gopher guard jumped into him and crashed hard to the ground, and the fans went bananas on the no-call.
The Gopher players, on the other hand, were largely reactionary. They were a step behind. Not as quick. That makes it much easier for a ref to anticipate contact and know that the defender is going to be late, and the contact worthy of a foul. And generally speaking they were right. The Roby fastbreak foul (when Pitino got his technical) was a microcosm of how the entire game was officiated. On that play a Gopher defender clearly clipped Roby’s arm. It was a foul, no question. But as a Gopher fan all you see is a bang-bang play that got called against your team. The reality is that the Gopher defender was just a little too slow, and Roby just a little too quick, for the steal to be made cleanly.
I finally get it. I now know why that game can’t be called evenly. As a ref you either call fouls on contact equally (which favors the slow home team), or you call fouls only on clear infractions (which favors the athletic road team). There is no way of officiating that game that “calls it both ways.” Sorry refs for all the mean things I’ve called you through the years. And thanks for getting the game right last night.