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The Duke/Referee Controversy

Today's Raleigh News and Observer used a fairly inordinate amount of ink on the recent controversy of Duke receiving the benefit of the doubt when it comes to foul calls in ACC contests. Of course the news article and Caulton Tudor column did exactly what one would expect and exonerate Duke from any wrongdoing in this controversy. Now, I tend to agree with that basic assertion for reasons I will enumerate later on, but the question is whether or not the N&O acted as a Duke apologist by devoting so much space to the issue? I think they did a little but since this was a newsworthy issue it was a story that needed to be written. Here is my breakdown on what the article and Tudor had to say.

The Article


The basic premise of the article is that Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski coaches his teams to be aware of the foul situation. The strategy, as articulated by the N&O, is that Duke players put themselves in position to get fouls by driving to the basket. The article also quotes Duke center Shelden Williams on the issue of how better players tend to be in a position to score thus inviting fouls from failed defenders. The article also says that Krzyzewski implore his players to avoid fouls especially when it may mean putting a team in the bonus.

Also addressed in the piece is the theory that ACC officials are in the tank for Duke. It cites the Boston College games where Duke shot 37 free throws to the Eagles' 13. The Florida State game is mentioned which included a wrongly called technical foul on FSU's Alexander Johnson. Miami coach Frank Haith is also quoted following Duke's 92-71 drubbing of the Hurricanes in Durham Sunday night as pointing out some questionable calls from the officials. Krzyzewski is quoted as questioning the veracity of any claim that the referees are showing favoritism and head of ACC officials John Clougherty is quoted as saying successful teams often endured this kind of accusation citing that for many years North Carolina was accused of receiving such calls. Other notables quoted in the article are FSU assistant coach Stan Jones, former Duke player and current ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, and CBS/Raycom color man Billy Packer.

The Column

Caulton Tudor also takes up the (Duke?)cause in offering his opinion that talent and good play often translates into more fouls an opponent and more free throws. He points out two valid ideas on why successful teams get more free throws. The first is that better offensive players are more difficult to defend and most fouls are often a result of attempting to stop a basket from occurring such as is the case when a defender gets beaten. The second circumstance is that teams which are winning are often fouled more at the end of games as a team is trying to catch up. For example, in the aforementioned BC-Duke game, 14 of Dukes free throws came from BC fouling to catch up. Tudor then goes off an a strange path in discussing the winning percentages of UNC, Duke, NC State, Maryland, and Clemson over the course of ACC history and the number of NBA each team has produced. He fails to offer any connection to these stats and the foul issue unless he is implying that these teams have had talented players and that somehow equates to getting more free throws. Tudor also relies heavily on statistics which show free throws attempted and fouls committed by the ACC champion and their opponents as evidence that great teams simply get more fouls committed against them because of their talent.


This is a complex issue fueled very much by team allegiances and the inevitable "Anyone But..." feeling that pervades every team but the one on top(see NASCAR and MLB for more examples of this). While I refused to go as far as the accuse the N&O of being Duke apologists, I do think the article is teetering on a fence between objective news and a supporting treatise for Duke basketball. I agree with Krzyzewski in respect to the idea that there is no conspiracy. Common sense should tell us that this is a virtual impossibility. In order to believe in a conspiracy one must believe that (1) All ACC referees have received instructions to treat Duke favorably and (2) All ACC referees march in lock step on this order and (3) Someone higher up in the ACC or NCAA has given such an order. I just do not believe that any of these are possible. I also agree that both talented players, great offenses, and end of game situations tend to create more fouls on defenders. It stands to reason that a team that wins 14 conference games will be fouled more at the end of close games they were winning than a team with only 4 wins. Also, if the defenders are slow or fail to properly defend then they are more likely to commit fouls. Couple that with the fact that losing teams also tend to have players which a lower basketball IQ i.e. they commit bonehead plays and fouls more often than winning teams do, then it is plausible that you will see more fouls on the opponents.

That being said my fault with the article is that it fails to address the accusation that Krzyzewski bullies the officials. Now, I stand by the assertion that the referees are not pro-Duke. However, I would be a fool if I did not believe that Krzyzewski's badgering of the referees in what has been described as profanity laced tirades did not have an impact on the referees who are human beings. It also should be noted that the way Krzyzewski addresses the referees during the game is the alleged cause of the Duke favoritism, not so much an orchestrated plan by the ACC or NCAA. Does his referee abuse have a profound effect on how games get called? I think it is possible to a small degree but we also have no way of knowing. At any rate it would have been nice if the N&O, had raised the contention in the interest of full disclosure. I also think that the viewpoints gathered for the article were needlessly skewed in favor of Duke. Jay Bilas, who is a ESPN journalist, is also a Duke alum and excuse me if I happen to think there is no way he would say anything negative about Duke. They also quoted Billy Packer, who I do not have a high regard for nor do I believe has much more than six ounces of journalistic integrity in his whole body. I suppose that FSU coach Stan Jones was meant to be the alternative point of view, but it came off as a "Hey look, even FSU coaches do not believe there is a Duke conspiracy" kind of quote. I found the quotes from John Clougherty legitimate, but I take issue with the notion that UNC had tons of benefits from foul calls. I never thought that was the case during the past 25 years of my watching UNC play but I also cannot recall every game and every instance.

Speaking of full disclosure I will say, up front, I think Caulton Tudor is a horrible columnist. I rarely find anything he writes to be worthwhile in the least. Now on with the post.

I am really not sure what Tudor's point was other than saying talented players will automatically result in more fouls on your opponent. I do not necessarily disagree with that assertion but is also seems too simplistic. Tudor relies very heavily on a bevy of 20 year statistics in this area which I think is suspect logic. Statistics can tell you many things but what they cannot tell you is (1) What fouls were not called that should have been called which benefited the winning team and (2) How many fouls were called against an opponent at a key point of a game which gave the winning team the boost they needed to win. The source of the Duke-referee gripe lies on two recent situations of similar ilk. The former came when a BC player was mugged by Shelden Williams at the end of the Duke-BC game earlier this season and the referees called nothing. The latter occurred when FSU's Johnson received a technical foul, which was his fifth foul, for doing exactly nothing to Shelden Williams. I also think Tudor's column is a bevy of contradictions by asserting that the stats show some advantage for champion team and then pointing out that last season's regular season champ, UNC, was fourth in free throws. Then Tudor goes on this very strange trip to the history books by recounting the various winning percentages and NBA products of ACC schools as though that in itself has some profound bearing on this topic. While Tudor's basic assertion on talent and better offense are correct, he banks too much on stats which I think tend to be meaningless. Comparing what Georgia Tech did in 1985 with no three point line, a 45 second shot clock, and 3/4 year college players with what happens today with a 35 second shot clock, a three point line, and players who tend to be much less experienced due to the NBA draft is intellectually dishonest. The shorter shot clock and three point line have fundamentally changed defenses and offenses.

My overall opinion is that Duke enjoys some edge in foul calls based partially on talent and winning, partially on having good defenders who play good defense without fouling. I do think there is some contribution to the way Krzyzewski works the referees in a game, though it is impossible to define what benefit there is to that. Perhaps the benefits of foul calls just comes from being successful and if all these other teams want to get those calls should quit complaining, recruit some decent players, and start winning some games. After all, any one turnover committed during the course of the game is likely enough to cancel out any bad call from the referee.