Those of you who go all the way back with us know that this blog used to be in another place under another name. What you may not know is that blog was created and run mostly by men with law degrees who had ties to WVU. We don't see Dr. Charley West, The 25314, 5th Year Senior, or Country Roads quite as much as we used to. In fact, my life now prohibits me from writing as much as I would like here, but this is a subject I have wanted to write something about since about the middle of last football season. It is a subject that I hope draws some comments from the lawyers that used to haunt this space. That subject is officiating, and more explicitly, the idea of justice in a sporting game.
WVU got killed last night by a superior team. I think most of us would agree that a lot of chips would have had to fall the Mountaineer's way for them to beat the Wildcats, but all hope of even the semblance of a competitive contest was erased in the first five minutes of the game, and not by Kentucky, but by the men officiating the game. This may seem like crying to a UK fan who may be visiting our blog for the first time to see what we are saying about such an ass-kicking, but what that fan probably doesn't realize is that this is a meme that has been evolving since WVU started conference play in the Big XII.
The stats are real. WVU is dead last of 345 teams in fouls-per-game, averaging 23.5 per contest (that is 821 fouls from 35 games!). We all know that the Mountaineers play aggressive, hard-nosed defense, that they should foul more than the average team. But the average team has 6.5 fewer fouls than we average, and the median has 5 fewer. That doesn't sound like so much, but game after game, it adds up, and I know everyone reading this would agree that terrible officiating cost WVU at least three close games this season. WVU out-fouled every team it played in conference play except Oklahoma State (tying with OK State in another game and with Kansas once).
As I was bitching about the refs via Twitter last night, one snide UK fan replied: "Stop fouling. Easy fix." Well, not really, for this very reason: are we really fouling? The referees in Mountaineer games, seemingly this entire season, but especially in conference play, seemed to enter each contest with a mindset of calling fouls. It is as if it had been preordained. They call the game according to a preconception grounded in their knowledge of how WVU plays defense, and this point has really been driven home for me since tournament play began. I have a friend who is a huge UNC fan and over the past three weeks I have watched quite a bit of ACC basketball. My wife is from Wisconsin, so we have watched a lot of Big 10 basketball as well, and one thing I have noticed in watching these conferences' games is how much contact gets allowed. I can't tell you the number of times the last three weeks I have said: "That would have been a foul against WVU, that would have been a foul in the Big XII."
I had hoped that once we got out of conference play, we would get a fair shake from the referees, but both Buffalo and Maryland were bloodbaths of the type to which we have become accustomed, and then, take last night's game. Devin Williams had two fouls called in the game's first minute. UK reached the bonus with seven minutes left in the first half, while the Wildcats had yet to commit their second personal foul. Really? UK, also a hard-nosed defensive team, played that clean? Add in WVU's dismal shooting and UK's 60 percent from the field in the first 20 minutes, and it wasn't just "Game Over," it was the "Rout is On." (And now I have to sit here and listen to Dan Patrick' rip on WVU as I type this...no mention of the touch fouls in the first five minutes...).
...which goes to my broader point about justice in the game. The need for officiating in any sport is obvious. The job of an official is to make sure a game is played fairly and within the rules of play. Officials are human, and they make mistakes, they have biases, they have those preconceptions I mentioned earlier. But "played fairly and within the rules of play" hangs in my mind. The game is played, the refs make their calls, the clock winds down and then the game is over and it gets talked about, most of the time, as if only the teams on the floor settled the thing. Those other three people on the floor get forgotten, and talking about their failings usually comes off as just so much whining. There is no court of appeals. But much of this season (and the football season, as well) has given me that feeling of frustration one feels when up against a Draconian rule, where, like a child deprived of a desire, one has this sense of indignation and inchoate anger that things are the way they are, and they are that way because "someone says so."
Last night's game was a grand summation of so much of what had preceded it. I know that there is no reality where WVU would have defeated Kentucky without the shooting percentages being reversed, but even in the light of the beating we took, it felt like many other games this season. It felt like we were going to have to beat the other team (who didn't need any extra help, by the way) and the referees as well. It felt, from the first minute forward, like we had been cheated of any real chance.