I'm usually a hardcore deconstructionist when it comes to conspiracy theories involving referees, but several of Duke's recent basketball games have rendered my point of view virtually unsupportable, at least in the short term.
While playing Boston College on the road Feb. 1 and then Florida State at home three days later, the Blue Devils shot 80 free throws to their opponents' 24. And they swept the games by a combined three points.
I've never bought into the "Duke gets all the calls" paranoia that sounds off every year like the nasty caw of an ugly bird, but 80-24 over two games? That's not right. That suggests Duke is indeed benefiting from some form of favoritism, however unwitting.
The Dukies are playing Maryland this afternoon at Comcast Center in College Park, where, of course, there's a conspiracy theory for every red T-shirt, and while my usual instinct is to preach calm, having faith in the integrity (though not always in the competency) of people who officiate major spectator sports, I'm keeping my mouth shut this time.
How can you preach calm after 80-24?
Does that mean I believe Atlantic Coast Conference officials are under orders to guide Duke to victory? Absolutely not. Frankly, the suggestion is barely worth dignifying. Duke is a splendid team that wins because of its superior shooting, passing, defense and discipline, not because of referee favoritism. Much as the Super Bowl refs didn't intentionally favor the Pittsburgh Steelers over the Seattle Seahawks, ACC refs don't try to make sure the Blue Devils win.
I'll happily rethink my position if someone catches today's Comcast Center refs huddling over a top-secret memo from some conference pooh bah emphasizing the necessity of a Duke win, but there is no such memo. Officials in all sports routinely make mistakes attributable to qualities such as poor judgment, poor eyesight or a lack of fortitude, and sometimes, as in the Super Bowl, those mistakes seemingly add up to an advantage for one side; but no matter if that advantage is real or perceived, there are no orders to influence outcomes.
Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren should be ashamed for saying that he "didn't know we were going to have to play the guys in the striped shirts as well" as the Steelers (for that matter, he also had to overcome his own pathetically ineffectual clock management at the end of both halves), and ordinarily, I would say those in the anti-Duke chorus should feel similarly ashamed.
But not after 80-24.
Even if you buy into the dubious axiom that Duke teams always shoot more free throws because of their slashing style (a theory espoused mostly by Dukies and their acolytes), a disparity of that magnitude reeks of partiality.
Maybe we're at the point where refs really are afraid to draw the ire of Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, Mr. American Express himself, an imposing sideline figure. Or maybe the refs have unknowingly expanded the concept of superstar bias - a fact of life in every sport - to include every Duke player.
Maybe it's all attributable to this season's change at the top of the ACC's officiating structure, where John Clougherty, a respected former official who worked 12 Final Fours, has replaced longtime supervisor Fred Barakat, now an associate commissioner for men's basketball. Clougherty is working in some new faces. Krzyzewski's glare could intimidate them.
Whatever the rationale, an 80-24 free-throw advantage suggests trouble is possible on any night. Overall, Duke has shot 88 more free throws than its opponents while going 10-0 in ACC play this season.
To Clougherty's credit, he quickly laid a one-game suspension on the three refs who worked the Duke-Florida State game, ostensibly because they erroneously made a key technical foul call in Duke's favor, but also surely because Duke shot 43 free throws to Florida State's 11 even though the Seminoles were slashing to the basket just as hard. When Florida State's Al Thornton said "it's got to be the same at both ends" after scoring 37 points, he wasn't whining, and no one accused him of it.
One day after Clougherty's suspensions came down, North Carolina shot 29 free throws to Duke's 24 in Duke's 87-83 victory in Chapel Hill on Tuesday night. It was a hopeful sign.
Of course, having beaten the Terps by a 76-52 score last month in Durham, the Blue Devils might not need any free-throw advantage to win again today. But I'm guessing the Terps will be more competitive, making every call important.
All eyes will be on both teams, and also on the guys in the striped shirts. That might not be fair, but after 80-24, it's inevitable and understandable.