Head Coach Fran McCaffery showed streaks of Bob Knight last night in Cedar Falls, but unfortunately the Hawkeyes didn’t respond to his aggression with poise or increased flame, losing control and eventually the game to the University of Northern Iowa by 20 points.
I should preface this by saying UNI is a solid to good mid-major team, with an 8-1 record, victories over the two most visible programs in the state, and a roster stocked with experienced three-point gunners. Guard Anthony James is a great individual scorer, who poured in 18 points and went 8-8 from the free throw stripe. The Panthers shot 11-21 from three-point range, continuing to expose Iowa’s defensive flaws, while the Hawkeyes shot a paltry 1-12 from long distance. Despite how hard the Hawks played, Fran’s squad was by no means guaranteed a victory at the McLeod Center Tuesday evening. But this game would not have been so lopsided without the influence of referee John Higgins and his crew of officials. Against such an incompetent group of zebras, Iowa didn’t stand a chance.
The unquestionable story of the game was the officials, specifically the ejection of Fran with five minutes left after his second technical foul. The ejection was a natural culmination, and Fran’s reaction completely justified, after a helplessly frustrating succession of poor, one-sided calls. UNI shot 33 free throws to Iowa’s nine, and made 29 of them. For the majority of the evening, the officials were quick to blow their whistles for a series of touch fouls, flops (mostly from UNI’s tiny white guards), and elbow shivers. Yet, despite how tightly the officials called the game, Iowa was directly in the thick of a heated, back-and-forth contest, down only 47-45 with solid 11-minute chunk of time left to play, when everything spiraled out of control.
The self-inflicted destruction began with a questionable offensive foul call on Zach McCabe, which sparked a fiery rage from the Iowa bench. The venomous protest earned two technical fouls divvied out to Fran and assistant coach Kirk Speraw, which is like handing out two speeding tickets for the same violation — a questionable call, to say the least. Four free throws later, and UNI had a six point lead and the ball without having to execute an offensive possession.
The very next possession, McCabe, who seemed to be a lightning rod for heated emotions last night, was called for a foul on Panther center Seth Tuttle and promptly bounced the ball off the backboard in apparent frustration. He was called for a technical foul, Iowa’s third received in a 20-second span, so after the technical free throws and Tuttle’s deuce from the initial foul, Iowa was down 10 points and their spirits were ripped out. After shooting nearly 60 percent from the field up to the that point (they finished with a more-than-effective 51 percent), with inspired play from usually struggling Melsahn Basabe and Eric May, it was absolutely crushing to give that kind of effort and be down by 10 without even having a real opportunity to play defense.
The situation escalated to a fever when, after two offensive fouls called on Matt Gatens, Gatens missed a three-pointer after receiving a bit of contact. Fran went ballistic, charging at the officials onto the court, knocking some cups over at the scorer’s table, and raising his hands in the air in sheer fury, bellowing “Where is the foul?” It wasn’t necessarily the sudden swallowing of the whistle that bothered Fran; it was likely the escalation of bad calls in succession, and the different manner in which the officials treated Iowa’s players and UNI’s players. Fran was ejected and given a police escort out of the arena, which was ridiculously excessive whether or not it is standard practice. The Hawkeyes never recovered from the chaotic downward spiral, and the route was on. The players said all the right things in the post-game, dismissing anger at their coach for losing his cool at the worst possible moment and expressing thanks at his willingness to defend them to the highest degree. But they were undoubtedly frustrated despite Fran’s alleged locker room apology, and Fran obviously had the game’s officiating on the mind when he sarcastically quipped in the post game interview that he wasn’t aware of the free throw disparity between the two teams.
It is worth noting two things before judging whether Fran’s actions were appropriate or not. First, of Iowa’s nine free throws, over 90 percent of them came in apparent mockery after Fran’s ejection, when the game was firmly in hand. Also, John Higgins, a notoriously problematic referee and the one who ejected Fran, has an interesting background, which raises a few questions. The noted Duke homer was an official in Duke’s Elite Eight game against West Virginia in the NCAA Tournament two years ago when DeSean Butler blew out his knee and was called for a flagrant foul on the same play. The guy who made the flagrant call? John Higgins. The call was so abysmal Higgins made the front page of Yahoo Sports, probably attention he enjoyed.
Last night, the officials did the one thing referees cannot do in a sporting event; they affected the outcome of the game with their actions. Instead of policing the game and keeping emotions under control, they played to a raucous McLeod Center crowd and allowed ferocity to escalate, leaving Iowa in a double-digit hole after the Hawkeyes had played nearly even with the Panthers throughout the game. I don’t think the officials should be fired, have their licenses revoked, or even run over. But a serious re-evaluation or even a suspension is in order for last night’s crew for allowing that game to become out of control and directly affect the outcome by instituting such a wide free throw gap between teams.
Fran bears responsibility, sure, for not checking his emotions and receiving a terribly timed technical foul when his team was only down two points. He has received a fair share of criticism from sportswriters for hurting his team at a crucial moment, as his team reflected their coach’s lack of composure after the toss. But I commend Fran and support him 100 percent for showing restraint until the second half to bum rush the floor in unchecked fury. The officiating was awful, a borderline job, and Fran needed to make a statement. Sometimes, when a coach gets a technical, his team plays motivated and inspired, energized with the belief that their coach believes in them. Last night, it didn’t work. Fran has shown a feisty temper throughout his career, leading the Big Ten in technicals last season with seven. He has also struggled traditionally at the McLeod Center — when he coached at Siena in 2009, Fran was similarly ejected from the arena. Many coaches, such as the aforementioned Knight, have experienced success with the “ticking time-bomb” mentality of sticking up for your players. Fran doesn’t have the success at Iowa yet to support his philosophy, but his passion, honesty, investment in the game, and blatant willingness to sacrifice himself at the cost of standing up for his squad are attributes I would be proud to see in a coach for my team. What happened last night was a complete injustice, and if Fran hadn’t shown outrage over the completely botched effort by the men in stripes, somebody should have checked his pulse. He cared about the outcome, and he cared that his team wasn’t being given a fair chance by the officials. I would expect Fran to do the same thing every time in such a situation, and he shouldn’t have to apologize for expressing disgust at the officials’ embarassing performance.
Perhaps the Hawkeyes wouldn’t have won even if the officials swallowed their whistles. Or perhaps they would have. Fans of both teams won’t ever know, because the officials made sure their imprint on the game took precedence over everything else.