Will officiating be a factor on Saturday night?
In the small interview for 35 Seconds I was asked about the pendulum swinging the other direction for UNC following four fairly convincing wins leading up to the Final Four. This is part of what I said:
Certainly they are playing well but my greater concern is the weird game where things that have not been a problem all season suddenly become a problem such as Hansbrough getting three fouls in the first half...
Now I am on record as saying that officiating neither wins or loses games for a team but rather players make or don't make plays to determine the game. That being said, I am a tad concerned about the officiating aspect of the national semifinal. Having watched enough Final Fours over the years and especially all the ones with UNC in them I know it is a different set of games. It just is and it is hard to articulate in words but Final Four games have a tension and feel to them that is in no way similar to any games before that weekend and rightfully so since it is a four team tournament for all the marbles. Obviously it also a three games that gets a lot of attention. Why does this matter? Because as much as I believe the players are affected by the stage I also think the officials calling the game are as well.
Think back to last season when Georgetown faced Ohio State and the media hype all week was on the notion that we would be watching two true seven footers with legitimate skills facing off on college basketball's biggest stage. Since the NBA early defections had routinely been taking the true big men out of the game this was a rare moment to see centers of this size facing off. So what happened? The officials basically shutdown any hope of such a matchup in the first half by calling a tight game and saddling both players with two fouls apiece. So you had players who were accustomed to one manner of officiating all season and even in the tournament finding themselves in a tightly called game.
The problem here is we assume the officials are completely objective and without emotion. We forget at times they are human beings who are subject to the same anxiety levels the players will have. In some cases they might be so intent on making sure these very important games are called correctly it leads to an zeal with the whistle that completely changes the game in a way that the players on the court have not seen all year. Given the fact UNC relies heavily on Tyler Hansbrough I am truly afraid that he is going to get saddled with two fouls early and be forced to sit. Then again he got two fouls early versus USC in the 2007 Sweet Sixteen and played anyway but whether it is Hansbrough or Marcus Ginyard or Danny Green or even Ty Lawson, I am concerned the officials will get whistle happy and put a key Tar Heel on the bench for a key stretch of the game.
Now the sword cuts both ways on that. If the officials happen to call a tight game it could also land key Kansas players in foul trouble sending Hansbrough and possibly others to the FT line giving the Heels an edge there. As state above and many times before I still think players makes plays to win games. However the influence of the officiating makes that prospect more or less difficult depending on the consistency level of the calls.
The good news for UNC is I am firmly convinced this team is the most versatile team at this Final Four when it comes to handling tempo, game situations and yes even a sudden shift in officiating. Roy was asked in his press conference yesterday if it was possible to build a college basketball team for March in the same way a baseball team is built to win in October. Roy did not really get into whether your could but in my opinion there are certain teams geared to win in March. Teams that can play well on both ends of the court, who can adapt to play any style and show tremendous poise regardless of the game situation are squads that are "built for March."
There is no doubt in my mind UNC is such a team. The poise and maturity has been on display all season. UNC has met multiple opponents with different styles and found a way to win. The Tar Heels have had key players out or hobbled by injury and improvised to avoid defeat. I can think of no other Tar Heel team I have watched that gives me the impression that even when the game is looking dire, it is truly not over until the fat lady sings. Being 36-2 means UNC has faced all the variables and dealt with them in victorious fashion in every case but two. Which is to say, regardless of what happens on Saturday night, my confidence in this team to handle everything from a poor shooting night to bad officiating is extremely high. They have given me no othe reason to believe otherwise.