clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Play Caller Takes A Closer Look At Traveling Calls!

I’ve been thinking for nearly two weeks now about what light I could shed on “The Travel” that would make Duke fans feel better, or at least less confused, while being fair to the officiating crew in Duke’s game at Wake Forest.  I looked at replays by the twenties and studied rules I’d read a hundred times, hoping that something useful would present itself.   And the hours of video review, rules study, and wandering thought did finally pay off, though I’m still trying to work out exactly how.  Where, after all, is the pay-off to a Duke fan in knowing to an absolute certainty that a travel was committed in the last three seconds of that game?

Does it lie in bringing myself and potentially others to a more thorough understanding of an obscure clause in the rulebook?  Is it in being able to get over the pain of a tough loss more easily by concluding that Wake did indeed ‘deserve’ the victory, whatever that even means?  Is it in thinking that Gerald Henderson might be able to forget about the ending more easily if he knew the truth, that he didn’t get screwed on the travel call?  It’s in none of those things.  Because the travel I’m referring to wasn’t committed by Gerald Henderson; it was committed by James Johnson on the game-winning lay-up.

Those who didn’t delete the game after their own frustrating replay review will be able to see it clearly.  When he took control of the inbounds pass from L. D. Williams, Johnson’s left foot was clearly—no slow-motion required—on the ground.  Without dribbling he then elevated for a jump-stop into the lane before going up for the lay-in.  For those keeping score we have a pivot foot established (never a dribble), the pivot foot going up, and the pivot foot coming down before a pass or shot.  By rule it’s a travel. (And if you try to rationalize Duke’s loss by arguing any of that to your ABD or Wake connections, you deserve all of the eye-rolls and laughter that come your way.)

If I have anything interesting at all to write about the call on Henderson it is only that everybody’s going to have to make peace with it, because 99 times out of 100, Duke or no Duke, that’s going to be a travel (and you’d never see the hundredth guy on television again).  Though a reasonable, but not definitive case could be made that the call was technically incorrect, we’re howling at the moon in getting mad at the officials who called that play.  Were those clamoring for a foul or a no-call on the Henderson travel just as upset when G wasn’t called for a run-over before his pass to Scheyer for the potential game-winner against Miami?  Because Miami fans have as legitimate a gripe on that play as Duke fans did on the Wake travel.

If there’s much to be taken from discussing officiating and the Wake Forest end-game, it’s in trying to understand why nobody ever argued for a travel call on Johnson.  Part of the explanation lies in the differences in how Duke fans watched the replays of the Henderson travel sequence and the Johnson lay-up.  On the first play, most of us were watching specifically to better inform our judgments on the supposed travel itself.  Few in blue were much worried about whether Mike Wood could or should have put Teague on the line for two shots following the bump he absorbed from Dave McClure on the drive.  The microscopes were instead focused almost exclusively on Henderson’s feet and the grounded Teague.

For those who had the stomach to review the following play the mindset was completely different.  By the time we saw any replays we all knew that Duke had suffered a huge defensive breakdown.  For most Duke fans the only reason to even review that play was to try to understand exactly how Johnson came to receive and score the ball so easily. It’s no wonder, then, that in not looking for the travel on Johnson, most didn’t see it.  This despite the facts that 1) lots of people watched that play lots of times, and 2) if one had been focusing intently on Johnson’s feet, the travel was much more easily discernible than many that are called from the stands and living rooms on Tyler Hansbrough.  So here we have a play that by rule did constitute a clear, but not obvious violation.  Even if it won’t do much to salve the wound from Winston-Salem, a better grasp of the differences between those two words can help us with something else:  resolving some of the collective angst regarding Tyler and the Refs.

It’s an immutable fact that when critiquing officials or playing out what-if scenarios, fans will start by cherry-picking the plays that support their arguments while forgetting or ignoring the more inconvenient truths. As the Johnson play is meant to illustrate, for the officials making decisions in real time, not every clear play is obvious.   A fan instinctively clamors for the benefit of every call that is clear, without concern for whether it should have been obvious to an official. It should go without saying, however, that such a standard is impossible for referees to meet.  What officials strive for--and the only reasonable thing fans can hope for—is adherence to the referee’s number one rule:  call the obvious.

It’s easy for fans to use wide angles and replays to discern what is clear, but consider the challenges officials face in calling Hansbrough’s obvious.  First, he’s a post player.  Post players are generally involved in more potential fouls than perimeter players, since they tend to operate in more congested spaces.  Another initial challenge with Hansbrough is his unorthodox style of movement.  If the goal is to get rebounds and score points there’s no problem with not being smooth.  But for officials, trying to referee the un-smooth is a pain.

If a high-level official knows where the offensive guy is going to end up, 95%+ play-calling accuracy is a virtual lock; but that percentage drops precipitously when officials are simply reacting rather than anticipating.  And if the officials with wider angles to see the rest of the floor are unsure of what’s coming next, how about the defender trying to match Hansbrough by himself?  He’s probably guessing, too.  This situation, in which an official who didn’t anticipate well is trying to judge a defender who’s trying to play catch-up in the paint, is a sure-fire recipe for controversy, since it often ends with none of the officials having a great look at the entire play.

In addition to his game being tough to anticipate, Hansbrough makes the officials’ jobs more difficult still by rarely giving them benefit of a free missed guess.  For example, Hakeem Olajuwon was an amazingly quick post presence whose movements were often difficult to predict.  He made things really tough on referees, sometimes making them look downright silly.  But in addition to fooling lots of officials, Hakeem would often fool his defender so badly that the play would develop in a way that was completely obvious, whether that meant a clumsy foul or an uncontested dunk or fade-away.   An official can be badly out of position and still correctly judge an off-balance stiff trying to stop a gracefully spinning Dream.  But it’s rarely that easy with Hansbrough, who by virtue of his lack of quickness and nose for contact tends to punish everyone who guesses wrong.

These factors alone are sufficient to predict that Hansbrough would require more murky decisions from officials than would an average player.  What makes Hansbrough more controversial still is that there are two other variables at work that serve to strengthen—or exacerbate, depending on your perspective—the overall trend.  The first is the number of touches he receives in scoring position relative to offensive possessions played, also known as the anti-McClure effect.  The other is his team’s average number offensive possessions: according to Ken Pomeroy’s latest update UNC is second in the nation in unadjusted offensive possessions per game.

The simple math thus dictates that even if officials judged Hansbrough’s plays with the same accuracy rate that they judge everyone else, Hansbrough would still be the beneficiary, AND THE VICTIM, of more missed calls than anyone else on the floor.  As human beings second and partisan fans first, our brains aren’t predisposed to index for the rates here.  It won’t matter to most Duke fans that the Blue Devils may have only rarely challenged Hansbrough to play tough post defense; it will only matter that Zoubek and Thomas got dinged incorrectly a couple of times when they themselves were trying to defend Hans.

So what’s the argument here?  I haven’t done the kind of intensive video review necessary to claim that Hansbrough’s plays are (or aren’t) judged as accurately on average as those of most other players.  What is clear to me, though, is that if the proper discounting is done for his position, his unorthodox game, his status as focal point of the offense, and UNC’s high number of possessions per game,  the officials do a much better job of refereeing Hansbrough than lots of fans and media members give them credit for.   It follows, then, that if you think Hansbrough gets more breaks than he should, you basically have two theories on which to hang your hat:  1) Difficult tasks will generally be executed with less precision than simple ones, or 2) The refs are in the tank for Tyler.  And if you choose the latter, may you be shown no mercy by your friends who’ve been saying the same thing about Duke for the last decade.

I’ll save discussion of Tyler’s travel adventures for the return trip to Chapel Hill.

The Playcaller welcomes your questions and comments at