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The Playcaller On A Most Fascinating Situation

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By last Thursday night everyone with even a passing interest in the Men's NCAA Basketball Tournament knew the name Ed Corbett, the official who missed a critical out-of-bounds call late in sixteenth-seeded UNC-Asheville's opener with top-seeded Syracuse.   The play deserved a lot of attention:  had it been decided correctly, Asheville's fading hopes for a history-making upset would have been sustained, at least for another possession or two.

Given Asheville's eventual loss Corbett's late miss deserved and received a great deal of attention.  But despite the extensive air-time and thousands of tweets spent discussing it, from an officiating standpoint the play itself simply wasn't all that interesting.  There were no arcane rules to discuss, only a handful of general theories as to why the ref kicked the call. 1) Corbett's view of the play was momentarily distorted when an Asheville defender swiped at the ball, leading Corbett to "see" the ball out-of-bounds off of Asheville; 2) Corbett correctly saw the ball off of Syracuse, but judged the Asheville player guilty of a foul on the play and tried to thread the needle by awarding the ball back to Syracuse (a calculus which, if used, actually benefitted Asheville); or 3) Corbett saw the play correctly, did not judge Asheville guilty of a foul, and decided to give Asheville the ball anyway because he loves Syracuse or the Big East (where he referees a lot of games), or because he hates Asheville, or because his brain is simply not up to the task.

My understanding is that, despite hours of discussion and thousands of tweets, exactly zero people in the entire country have changed their opinion as to what caused the mistake.  So I won't attempt any magic acts in this space.  What I will do is try to call some attention to a play in that same game that seems to me more worthy of actual discussion (as opposed to ranting).  It's a play so unique that no one claims to have seen an exact analogue before in a college game.  It's a play whose applicable rules were complex enough to possibly induce a mistake from the officiating crew, and to flummox several highly respected television analysts.  Indeed, almost a week later, it seems no one in the mainstream sports media has earnestly pressed for a clarification from the NCAA on what should have happened and why.

The Play

The facts:  with approximately two seconds left in the first half and while in the act of shooting, Syracuse's Brandon Triche was whistled for a hit on the arm by Asheville's Matt Dickey.  When the foul occurred the shot clock was clearly showing a"1" (which shouldn't be confused with "one second")*.   Slow-motion replay shows that Corbett's foul signal (raised fist) begins at about 1.7/1.8 seconds on the game clock and the shot clock still reading "1."  At the moment the shot clock expires, however, the ball is still clearly in Triche's hand, as the shot-clock operator did not stop it immediately.  What made the play even more complicated is that, in an obvious mistake, the game clock was also allowed to run down to triple-zero.

The ruling and the broadcasters' explanation

After reviewing the play at the courtside monitor the officiating crew ruled that the basket would be waved off and the foul on Dickey disregarded,  both events superseded by an adjudged shot-clock violation.  The game clock was reset to 1.4 seconds and the ball was awarded to Asheville on the baseline (as would be the proper mechanic for a shot clock violation at that place on the court).

Here's what the members of the broadcast crew said when the ruling was announced.

Kevin Harlan: One-point-four will be on the clock, and the basket will not count.

Reggie Miller:  But free throws, then, because there was a foul (emphasis mine).

Len Elmore:  But if a shot doesn't count, then it's a dead ball.  Once the shot clock goes off, dead ball.  Anything that occurs after that, also not counted.

While the TruTV trio did talk about the play for approximately 90 seconds as the referees reviewed the video, those three lines represent the whole of the discussion of the ruling itself.   A couple of points on those calls:  first, Miller raises the central question about the ruling, i.e. what about the foul?  Second, Elmore seemed more concerned with delivering a justification-any justification-for the ruling than he did with delivering a coherent and accurate explanation.   After all, the broadcast crew had already clearly established that the foul came before the shot clock expired, so Elmore's comment was, at best, not applicable to the play at hand.

Obviously the television audience would have benefited if Miller had pressed Elmore on his non sequiter.   But the fact that he did not shouldn't excuse those in the TruTV studio, a group who mostly failed to engage on the play despite having several hours to talk and think it before the end of their broadcast.  Indeed, while substantial time was devoted throughout the day to discussing that game (and a couple of other plays in particular), relatively little attention was paid to this play or ruling.  That they didn't give the play more pointed attention is even more surprising given the in-studio appearance that day of the NCAA's Coordinator of Men's Basketball Officials, John Adams.  Though Mr. Adams was briefly asked about the play, none of the talent in studio seemed to notice that he elected not to affirm the officials' decision. **

What, then, about the foul?

A different interpretation

The problem with the play seems most fundamentally a clock problem.  Rule 5.10.1(a) states that upon an official signaling a foul, both the game- and shot clocks shall be stopped.  Following the foul in question, neither clock was stopped properly, i.e. on the official's signal.  Normally the rules provide no recourse for officials to review whether a shot clock violation has occurred; however, Rule 2.13.3(b) does allow for such a review in the event that the game clock has expired.  So the crew members were certainly justified in going to the monitor.

But in addition to the rule allowing for a shot-clock review when the game clock goes to zeros, for games in which replay equipment is available rule 2.13.2(c) enumerates the instances which are reviewable in order to address "timing" issues.  Point One of sub-article (c), for instance, allows for reviews in the case of a shot- or game clock "malfunction."  While this play involved no clock malfunction, per se, the more- applicable Point Two allows for officials to "determine whether a timing mistake has occurred in either starting or stopping the game clock."  And Point Three of the same sub-article allows for the crew to determine "the correct time to be placed back on the game clock when the referee blows the whistle, signals for the game clock to be stopped, and in his/her judgment time has elapsed before the game clock stopped."

Clearly, the game clock did not stop properly when Corbett signaled the foul on Dickey, a foul which clearly occurred, and whose signal was begun, before the shot clock expired.  As such, 2.13.2(c) provides officials with the authority to have addressed this timing mistake.  The crew would seemingly have been justified, then, in restoring the game clock to the point at which the foul signal occurred, which was around the 1.7/1.8 mark.  And if that is correct, my read is that there could be no shot-clock violation since the shot clock didn't originally expire until the 1.6 mark.  Finally, if there was no shot-clock violation adjudged, then Triche's shot should have been allowed through its completion, which in this case was obviously a made basket.

In short, my interpretation of this play is that Triche should have been awarded the basket plus one free throw, and either 1.8 or 1.7 seconds restored to the game clock, that being the time at which the foul was signaled.  In a worse (but not worst) scenario for Syracuse, even if the basket were somehow disallowed I fail to see the justification for disregarding the foul and not even allowing Triche the opportunity to shoot the double-bonus that was in effect.

Why, then, would the crew rule as they did?

My best guess is that the crew used the strictest possible meaning of the term "signal," as in  "the clock should stop on a foul signal."  Maybe they looked at the replay and ruled that Corbett's foul signal had not been completed, i.e. fist raised above the head, before the expiration of the shot clock, and that the rules did not therefore allow them to acknowledge the foul.

At the very least, this is a play that deserved closer scrutiny both by the game announcers and the studio analysts.  The rest of the theory, though, is that Mr. Adams was more than happy not to be pressed on a point on which he disagreed with his crew.  And if that's true, then not only did the various experts not help out their different audiences as much as they could have-they also all missed a scoop.

*There's an important difference between the physical readings of shot clocks and game clocks.  Game clocks display tenths of seconds when there's less than a minute remaining.   When the clock reads 1:00, there is in all probability one minute and some number of tenths remaining.  But the instant the game clock runs under a minute, the clock reads 0:59.9, and so on.  To extend the logic all the way down, there is an instant (less than a tenth of a second) at which the clock reads 0:00:00 when the clock is still not, by rule, expired, and before the LED backboard lights come on.  By rule, officials are to use the LED lights, and not the clock, as their primary end-of-game cue, because it is in fact more accurate than the clock.

The shot clock, on the other hand, does not have a tenths reading, and is officially expired the instant it hits zero.  This means that there is almost always less time remaining than the "number of seconds" indicated.  So when the shot clock reads "1," in all likelihood there is actually less than one second remaining; but unless one has a stop-watch synced up, it's impossible to know exactly how much time remains.  Remember this the next time you hear an announcer state that there's "one second remaining on the shot clock for this inbounds play."

**This was Adams's response when asked by Seth Davis about the play: "Well (the crew) got really lucky in that the game clock happened to run to zeros, which permitted them to go then to the monitor to see if a shot clock violation occurred at all.  And it's one of the very rare things that can happen.  And they went to the monitor, and the shot clock violation occurred, in their opinion, before the foul.  So they set the clock back to one second and they gave the ball back to the other team."

The Playcaller can be reached at  .

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