"The officials handed the Super Bowl to the Steelers."
"The refs give games to Duke."
It's a great week for you conspiracy theorists out there - or is it?
ESPN is routinely blamed for the downfall of shooting percentages and Western civilization, but if there's one area in which the proliferation of televised basketball improved the game, it's officiating. When the public views the same highlights that are scrutinized in conference offices, home cooking dissipates and uniformity among whistleblowers increases.
That leads us to John Clougherty, the coordinator of officials for the Atlantic Coast Conference, coming down hard on the crew that worked Saturday's Duke-Florida State game at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
It's the latest episode in a saga that stops at Comcast Center on Saturday, when the Blue Devils play Maryland.
The high-water mark for Duke bashers remains the 2001 Final Four. Down by 22 points to Maryland in the semifinals, the Blue Devils made a record comeback and got over the hump when Lonny Baxter, battling Carlos Boozer for position, fouled out on a borderline call. After it lost in the title game, Arizona coach Lute Olson complained about Jay Williams getting away with contact that Olson considered worthy of fouls.
Five years later, Duke has another fine team, one that opponents view as the biggest game on their schedule. Adversaries can argue that the Blue Devils get breaks, but Mike Krzyzewski has a marked team.
Two weeks ago, Virginia Tech suspended Deron Washington for kicking Lee Melchionni in the face. After Duke won at Boston College last week, Eagles coach Al Skinner had some statements about the officiating. The Blue Devils shot 37 free throws to the home team's 13.
Maybe Skinner was spitting out sour grapes, but a public reprimand of officials, which Clougherty and the ACC made two days ago in response to an erroneous call in the Blue Devils' overtime win over the Seminoles, magnified the issue.
In Durham, Alexander Johnson sent Shelden Williams to the floor with a hard intentional foul. Williams got up and went after Johnson, who backpedaled. Both were called for technicals. It was Johnson's fifth, and the big man, who had his third straight double double, spent the rest of the game on the bench.
"Instead of walking away," Johnson told The Tallahassee Democrat, "I guess I'll run away from now on."
The Blue Devils were called for one foul over the game's last 14 minutes. Less than 48 hours later, Clougherty suspended referees Edward Corbett, Mike Eades and Raymond Natili for one game, in effect saying that only Williams deserved a technical. Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton took the high road, declining to blame the officials in a game that would have boosted the Seminoles' NCAA tournament hopes.
Like all great coaches, Krzyzewski knows how to work officials.
Now officiating Blue Devils games could become the diciest assignment in college basketball.
Thornton on the rise
That officiating controversy detracted from a thriller that had plenty of strange twists.
Corbett missed the last 11 minutes with a sprained knee. J.J. Redick needed an IV afterward. He had 36 points but was outscored by Al Thornton, who had 37.
Thornton, a 6-foot-8, 225-pound junior wing, averaged 9.1 points last season. Now he's good for 19.6 points, 7.3 rebounds and 52.8 percent shooting from the field in ACC games, despite turning a knee and going scoreless last week against Miami.
"The thing that separates him," Hamilton said, "is that his motor is always running. He practices as hard as he plays."
A win at Duke would have given Florida State three ACC road wins. It had one to show for the past four seasons. ... Georgia Tech and N.C. State, headed in opposite directions, both play three of their next four on the road. ... Seven of BC's nine conference games have been decided by four points or fewer. ... Virginia Tech's past two games have been decided by one point. ... Hokies junior Jamon Gordon leads the conference in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.43 to 1).