Editor's Note: The following blog/commentary offers the writer's views of the on-court performances and decisions of our men's basketball team. In no way should constructively-intended criticism be deemed as a lack of respect or admiration for our team's obvious desire and commitment.
Wednesday night, my friends and I were hanging out at the house watching NBA basketball. It was the Sacramento Kings at the Los Angeles Clippers – truly an epic, double-overtime battle between two conference heavyweights. At one point, the camera pans to the crowd and my buddy Tim, sitting next to me, says, "Hey, that's a Pac-10 ref. He must be officiating our game tomorrow. He's one of the best, so hopefully tomorrow's game will be well-officiated."
Alas, it was not so.
By now, much has been discussed in the papers, on TV and on the Web about Thursday's controversial call. There's not much more I can really say. Stanford got jobbed, pure and simple. You'll notice that, on the other side of the court, Lawrence Hill took the ball to the hoop and there was a lot of contact. He made the shot, but there was no call. And rightfully so. The unwritten law of basketball calls is that you let contact go in the final minute or so, especially in a close game.
Credit Trent Johnson and the players for taking the high road, however. "We were in control for most of the game until the final three or four seconds [of regulation]," Johnson told ESPN's Andy Katz on Friday. "We missed two block outs and had three turnovers prior to the [call] so it shouldn't have come to that. That's not what got us beat."
I know Johnson doesn't want to make excuses, especially in public, and I like that. But we know this logic doesn't exactly hold up. Yes, Stanford didn't help itself down the stretch with the missed block outs and turnovers. But who's to say, if Taj Finger had blocked out that free throw, for example, that UCLA wouldn't have started taking – and making – three-pointers. Darren Collison only seems to hit shots when he has to (more on that later). Basketball is a game of runs and momentum, and you really don't know what's going to happen in a counterfactual like that. The only conclusive assumption you can make is this: if the refs (ref, actually, the one actually close to the play didn't call it) don't call the foul on Hill, Stanford wins the game. It's as simple at that. Try to say anything else, and you enter the bizarre world of gray-area counterfactuals and inconclusive evidence.
My father, an Arizona law school alum who has fiercely converted to a Cardinal fanatic, may have been more mad about the outcome than I was. Putting his tried and true legal skills to work, he drafted an email to Bill McCabe, Pac-10 coordinator of officials. I won't reprint the contents here, but it essentially outlined the basic logic of why the call was so bad (the wrong ref called it, you never whistle a close call with 2.5 seconds left), called the play an "embarrassment to the league" (it did get a lot of press, thankfully) and demanded an apology to Stanford. As of press time, no response from the Pac-10, although I hear that McCabe did talk to Johnson this weekend and did everything but offer a public apology.
McCabe also had this to say to ESPN.com Friday: "There was body contact, but it's not a strong call, not a game appropriate call. I think you want a strong call at the close of the game." He also complimented the officiating crew for not getting the big men in foul trouble. Which is nice and all, unless you're Brook Lopez and getting hacked down low all the time.
Insult to injury:
UCLA also had the gall to run up the score during the final seconds. Not once, but twice they had the opportunity to simply run out the clock. But the Bruins took the ball to the hoop, both times. I am never, ever one to call for injuring an opponent. But if I'm guarding one of those players, it takes a great deal of restraint knowing that USC and the Pac-10 tournament are right around the corner, not to knock the showboat to the floor. Now there's your intentional foul (see the BS call in Goods in overtime).
Also notice, as my buddy Tim pointed out, that the line of the game was nine. UCLA ran up the score to win by 10. Coincidence? I think not. The only conclusion: The Bruin players are getting paid. Am I serious? Maybe…although this wasn't USC…
Second-guess of the weak:
Speaking of coincidences, here's a puzzler for you:
March 8: Fred plays only 6 minutes, Mayo scores 25 points
As for my take on the USC game? I think the guys were mentally and physically hung over from the UCLA loss. After reading Dan's write up of the Friday press conference, I was worried. Trent sounded beat and kept talking about how the guys were banged up. My bad feeling proved right: The Trojans jumped on Stanford and exploited every weakness possible. The Cardinal must be ready to handle pressure and athleticism if they are to go far in the NCAA Tournament. Scratch that, actually they have a Pac-10 Tournament to win first.
One play summed up the game for me. With 10:54 left in the game and Stanford trailing by nine, Brook Lopez misses a lay up. He gets his own rebound, however, but misses the put back. Taj Finger gets the offensive board, but misses his put back attempt. He gets his own rebound but misses again. Mitch Johnson grabs the offensive board, but his short jumper misses, too. O.J. Mayo gets the ball, starts the break and his a streaking Davon Jefferson for a wide-open dunk. The Trojan faithful go nuts. Stanford falls into a double-digit deficit, and all momentum is lost. It was the story of the game.
Calling out Collison:
A UCLA fan wrote me after Thursday's game to ask "how I liked Collison now." I assume this is a dig at my omitting Darren in last week's column picking my All-Pac-10 team. But other than my cutesy, alliterative headline above, I really like Collison. Remember, he was my preseason choice for Pac-10 Player of the Year (or you may not remember, because that was from The Stanford Daily, not here).
Collison's numbers haven't been as dominant as I thought. He has struggled in some of their biggest games (4-of-14 from the field in the loss to Texas, 1-of-8, eight turnovers in the loss to Washington). But Thursday night, he was unstoppable. Despite my selective numbers above – some might say more proof that the team does poorly when he does than a sign of anything else – he seems to only hit the big shots, especially to give his team momentum. He makes his teammates better. I'm still not sure if fellow Bruin Russell Westbrook isn't going to be better in the NBA, but I would be very happy if my hometown Sacramento Kings picked up Collison in the draft next year. And that's the highest praise one can ever get from me, a Kings fan.
The Pac-10 Tournament seedings are set. Stanford will face the winner of #7 seed Arizona and #10 seed Oregon State. It would be awesome if the Beavers could pull off a miracle and somehow stave off a winless conference season, but I'm not betting on it. Arizona's a tough draw, but the Wildcats haven't won two straight since a four-game win streak in January. Sure, Stanford hadn't lost two straight since last weekend, but the Cardinal took care of business against Arizona this year. Next would be the winner between #3 Washington State and #6 Oregon. The Ducks actually scare me more because of their athleticism, but the Cougars are a top talent, too.
Nothing is going to come easy in this postseason, and if the guys play like they did Saturday they could lose to anyone (except for maybe Oregon State). I'm sure that won't happen, however. With a couple days off, and a renewed focus, this team can beat anyone. Hopefully, revenge against the Bruins will be very sweet, come Saturday.
I guess progress wouldn't be the best word for this week, as Stanford's two-game losing streak dropped the team to 11 in both polls. That's a fair ranking, as this squad must answer the questions swirling around its mental and physical toughness and ability to handle athleticism and pressure before it can be considered a top-ten team.
At this point in the season (actually, many would say the whole season) the rankings are meaningless. They're a fun exercise, but the real concern is NCAA Tournament seeding. Unless Stanford beats UCLA in the Pac-10 Tournament final, a two-seed seems to be out of reach. On the other hand, if the Cardinal collapses and loses in the first (or even second) game, a four-seed would likely await. A three seed would be my bet.
Patrick Fitzgerald covers men's basketball as well as the occasional news
story for The Stanford Daily. Have some dirt on an opposing player or a
good idea for a 6th Man chant? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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