Winning a six-game, single-elimination tournament nearly always requires a bit of good luck. You need to play well, but sometimes, you also need your opponents to play poorly — and other times, you just need a break or two at the right time, whether it comes from a bad call, a lucky bounce or what-have-you. It happens every year. But sometimes it’s especially noteworthy.
Last year, I argued — and I still maintain this is true — that UCLA made it to the national championship game in large part due to a particularly remarkable string of good luck. Oh, sure, they played good defense and took advantage of the opportunities they were given. But the fact is, they benefited from an epic choke job by Gonzaga in the Sweet 16, and then managed to catch both Memphis and LSU on incredibly poor shooting nights in the Elite Eight and Final Four. Yes, the Bruins defense had something to do with that, but you’ll never convince me they deserve all the credit for Memphis shooting 31.5% from the field (not to mention 60% from the free-throw line) and LSU shooting 32.0% from the field (and 46.4% from the line!). The fact is, sometimes teams just go ice-cold, and that’s what happened to both sets of Tigers against the Bruins. Pundits largely ignored the “luck” factor, but the notion that UCLA’s defense was just so superhuman that it could magically cause any opponent’s offense to spontaneously implode was always laughable in my view, and it was clearly exposed as a fraud in the title game, when the Gators made the Bruins look like a high-school team in a 73-57 rout that wasn’t even that close. UCLA deserves credit for a great run last year, but simple good luck deserves quite a bit of credit, too.
This year, however, is a different story. UCLA has unquestionably earned its way to Atlanta with a string of dominating performances over good teams. In fact, the Bruins are the only team in the Final Four whose tournament run hasn’t had its share of flukes, close shaves and lucky breaks. In particular, the right side of the bracket might as well be called the “Borrowed Time Region,” because both Ohio State and Georgetown really should have been knocked out of the tournament long before now.
Xavier had the Buckeyes beaten in the second round, and would have finished the job if Ohio State hadn’t gotten any one of the three consecutive lucky breaks that it received in the closing seconds of regulation: the lack of an intentional-foul call against Greg Oden, the missed free throw by Justin Cage, and Xavier coach Sean Miller’s failure to have his players foul instead of giving up the tying 3. But all three of those breaks did go OSU’s way, and Buckeyes won in overtime. Then, as if to firm up their reputation as the tournament’s most Houdini-like team, Ohio State proceeded to fall behind Tennessee by 20 points late in the first half of their Sweet Sixteen game. Once again, it appeared the Buckeyes were finished. But the Vols couldn’t hold onto the massive lead, and their epic collapse paved the way for OSU’s trip to Atlanta.
Ohio State’s next opponent, Georgetown, knows a thing or two about benefitting from an opponent’s epic collapse. But before the Hoyas had the opportunity to watch North Carolina miss 22 of its last 24 shots and blow a 10-point lead with six minutes remaining in the Elite Eight, they first had to be gifted a Sweet Sixteen victory by a bad call in the closing seconds against Vanderbilt. I was rooting for the Hoyas (it’s my dad’s school, and I picked them to reach the Final Four), but let’s be honest: it really should have been Vandy playing UNC yesterday, because Jeff Green traveled before hitting the game-winning shot. It wasn’t called, however, so the Hoyas survived & advanced… and then North Carolina pulled off the greatest tournament choke job since that UCLA-Gonzaga game last year… so now Georgetown is Atlanta-bound. I’m not saying they don’t deserve it, but let’s not pretend they aren’t very, very lucky to be there.
Florida is a somewhat less obvious case, as there hasn’t been a single bad call or stunning rally that’s provided them with a clear-cut lucky break. But I continue to maintain that the Gators very definitely benefitted from favorable officiating in the Butler win, not because of any sort of conspiracy but because the refs’ approach to the game reinforced Florida’s overwhelming size advantage and made it virtually impossible for the Bulldgos to fully compensate with good fundamental defense. Simply put, the officials allowed the Gators to bump, push, and shoulder their way to the basket with impunity, an extreme version of a “let ‘em play” philosophy that turned the game from a skill contest into a brutish battle under the basket. The harshest and most consequential example came on a hoop that put Florida ahead for good with 2:34 left, when Al Horford knocked Brandon Crone over with a series of bumps and push-offs — and yet somehow, a foul was called on Crone, knocking him out of the game. The crowd erupted in boos of protest, Horford completed the three-point play, and the Gators were on their way to the Elite Eight; Butler would never get closer than three again. Watching that game in person, you really had the feeling that Butler would have won if they could have gotten over the hump and into the lead in the closing minutes… and if that call had gone the other way, they just might have. But it wasn’t to be. Now, could Florida have won without the officials’ help? Sure, absolutely. But given how remarkably close Butler came to winning despite Florida’s advantages in size, skill, athleticism and officiating, I think it’s fair to say that the Gators got lucky. Not quite as lucky as Ohio State and Georgetown, but lucky nonetheless.
So, what does any of this mean for the Final Four? Probably nothing. Plenty of teams have won championships while “living on borrowed time” after a lucky escape or two. And whoever wins the title will deserve all the credit in the world. After all, like I said, luck is part of the game, especially in a tournament like this.
Just don’t tell that to a Vanderbilt fan.
P.S. It’s scrolled way down the homepage now, but there’s a good discussion on a previous thread about bad officiating and the sports-journalism “code of silence.”