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Was St. John’s-Rutgers game fixed? No, but it needs to be

Rutgers coach Mike Rice left argues with referee during first half an NCAA college basketball game against St. Johns Big

Rutgers coach Mike Rice, left, argues with a referee during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against St. Johns at the Big East Championship, Wednesday, March 9, 2011 at Madison Square Garden in New York. St. Johns won 65-63. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

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There is no adjective for how bad the officiating was in the final minute of the St. John’s-Rutgers Big East Tournament game yesterday at Madison Square Garden.

It wasn’t madness in March. It was bedlam.

By now you’ve probably seen the footage. After two no-calls that would have put the Scarlet Knights at the free-throw line with a chance to tie or take the lead in the waning seconds, the officiating crew of Jim Burr, Tim Higgins and Earl Walton somehow missed St. John’s’ Justin Brownlee traveling, stepping out of bounds with both feet and hurling the ball into the crowd with more than a second remaining on the clock.

Maybe “unconscionable” comes closest to encapsulating this atrocious sequence of poor judgement in the Red Storm’s controversial 65-63 win.

John Adams, the national coordinator of men’s basketball officiating, called it “unacceptable.” That, of course, is a massive understatement.

The problem — well, one of them — is that the play wasn’t reviewable under current NCAA protocol because no call was actually made. And the officiating crew hustled into the tunnel and out of sight like they had an early-bird dinner reservation they just couldn’t afford to lose.

So the game ended when it shouldn’t have.

“A little bit of Keystone Cops there at the end,” a smiling Steve Lavin said in the postgame interview.

Except it’s not really a comedy. Sure, it was a longshot that Rutgers would have converted a game-tying or -winning shot had the proper call been made. A rational person would concede they’d have little to no chance of winning out and earning an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

But it’s measured tragedy in that it became the talk of the day on a day when the talk should have been about the heart-stopping finishes and Cinderella hopefuls that punched their tickets.

Immediately after the error, the Internet was flooded with those alleging conspiracy, some of them invoking the name of disgraced NBA referee Tim Donaghy. St. John’s was a solid 10-point favorite, so the spread was unaffected. However, the over-under on the game ranged anywhere from 127.5 to 129.5. The game ended with 128 total points scored, theorists point out.

That allegation seems a bit out there. Both Burr and Higgins — who have taken the brunt of the criticism — are veterans in their sixties with long, long track records. Interestingly, their experience is also being seen as problem. Some wonder about almost-senior citizens racing up and down the court five times a week with 18-22 year-olds.

Finding times when they were out of position on Wednesday was not hard to do for anyone who watched the game.

Is the answer to go younger? Can that really be done without overt ageism? Is that fair?

Adams has already intimated that there will, in fact, be a push to implement younger officials for the tournament. Rarely do you see such a swift reaction. It would seem to suggest that the NCAA knows a problem exists. And, the three refs acknowledging their poor decision have removed themselves from the rest of the tournament.

One of the most annoying things in sports is blaming the officiating for losses. Even in this case, it was not the only reason Rutgers lost. It’s not even the primary reason.

Universally overworked and under-appreciated, officials do a remarkable job, considering their limitations. Ninety-nine percent of the time, they get it right. Of course, we only remember the one percent they don’t.

What is the solution?

Simply put, there is no magical fix. The human element will always be flawed because, well, it’s human. And no one wants to see foul-calling machines. They’d probably scuff up the court anyway.

But how about expanding common sense in crucial situations? Why not require officials to, you know, make sure all the I’s are dotted and T’s crossed before fleeing the court at breakneck speed?

That’s certainly not too much to ask.

It seems ridiculous that something like what happened Wednesday can’t be corrected.

Now that college athletics is unabashedly big-business, can’t we insist on a more professional job from its officials?

Or at least on having no more embarrassments like yesterday.


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