The final moments of Wednesday’s BYU/Utah State produced a controversial call in a close game. With a little over two minutes to go in a three-point game, Verne Harris called an intentional foul on Utah State scoring machine Tai Wesley for swinging his elbows and making contact with an opponent.
I’m not sure whether the call was correct or not. I know Harris isn’t regularly working Final Fours because he ignores the points of emphasis. And indeed, players were reportedly apprised of the points of emphasis before the game. But if Tai Wesley wanted to remove Chris Collinsworth’s nose form his face, he could have been more obvious about it. As with most disputed calls, there’s room for discussion.
For the sake of this piece, let’s assume it was the worst call in the history of college hoops. At the very least this will provide an example of how much an official’s call can affect a game. I’ll use my win probability model to determine how much this particular call influenced the outcome.
In a close game, lots of events contribute to the final outcome. For instance, while Wesley himself did many positive things, he made just one of his six free throw attempts, which included three misses on the front end of one-and-one situations. When Wesley went to the free throw line, he had the opportunity to score nine points and instead scored one. In a very simplistic way, one could say Wesley cost the Aggies a victory in a game where the final margin was six points. But Wesley’s free throw shooting no more cost the Aggies a win than Harris’s call did. Each contributed to the outcome, but it’s probably not obvious which contribution was greater.
The easy part is tackling the foul call. Had there been no call, Utah State would have had the ball down by three with 2:05 left. That gives them a 33.6% chance to win*. With the call, BYU had the ball up 5, and the Aggies chance of winning was 18.3%. Verne Harris contributed 15.3% to BYU’s win. (Pardon the unnecessary precision.) I’m ignoring the fact the foul on Wesley disqualified him which hurt the Aggies’ chances further, but I’m also giving Collinsworth his two free throws. Considering he was a 43% free-throw shooter in his last full college season, that’s quite a gift and something one shouldn’t have expected when the call was made.
Now let’s work on Wesley’s free throw shooting. He went to the line five times:
Trip 1: 17:47 left in the first half, Utah State up 2. Wesley goes 0/1 from the line.
Effect on outcome: With a make to complete a three-point play, USU’s chances would have stood at 54.1%. Instead they were 52.6%.
Impact: a loss of 1.5%
Trip 2: 4:53 left in the first half, BYU up 3. Wesley misses the front end of a one-and-one.
Effect on outcome: With two makes, USU’s chances would have stood at 45.8%. Instead they were 40.4%.
Impact: a loss of 5.4%
Trip 3: 17:54 left in the game, game tied. Wesley makes one of two free throws.
Effect on outcome: With two makes, USU’s chances would have stood at 55.8%. Instead they were 52.0%.
Impact: a loss of 3.9%
Trip 4: 6:30 left in the game, game tied. Wesley misses the front end of a one-and-one.
Effect on outcome: With two makes, USU’s chances would have stood at 58.6%. Instead they were 47.1%.
Impact: a loss of 11.5%
Trip 5: 5:13 left in the game, BYU up 1. Wesley misses the front end of a one-and-one.
Effect on outcome: With two makes, USU’s chances would have stood at 53.0%. Instead they were 41.0%.
Impact: a loss of 12.1%
Total Impact: a loss of 34.4%**
In a tight game, every one of Wesley’s misses had nearly the maximum possible impact on the outcome considering when each trip occurred. Had Wesley put in this performance against a scrubby WAC team, the effect of his misses on the outcome would have been small. But in a game where neither team had more than an eight-point lead, it was big. Had he produced a great night at the line, the Aggies may have had some breathing room late, and would have had a much better chance of overcoming a bad call.
This, by the way, illustrates why scoring margin is such a good predictor of future performance. If you are consistently dominating opponents, things outside of your control like officiating have little impact on your chance of winning. If you are constantly in close games, then you’ll often need some help to win. In this case, Utah State was in a position where it needed everything to go right over the last few possessions to get a victory and it didn’t.
On the one hand, the story of this game could be that Verne Harris’s loyalty to the points of emphasis cost the Aggies a win. But it’s rarely that simple. Utah State constantly had to overcome the impact of Tai Wesley’s missed free throws (which mind you, Wesley did a lot of himself during live action.) The late misses in the bonus were especially harmful, by themselves at least as damaging as Harris’s call.
This also shows that it’s completely foolish to expect officials to be perfect. Verne Harris works a ton of games, and works deep into the NCAA tournament every season. Yet with all that exposure it’s almost impossible to find a bad word about him, even in crazy message-board land. Try going to google and typing a famous ref and then “sucks” after his name. You’ll get plenty of hits, but not for Verne.
If you are three points down with two minutes to go, to some degree your chances of winning are at the mercy of the officials, and they will make mistakes. When Verne Harris, one of the better officials in the country, betrays you, it’s another indication of how events outside your team’s control can contribute to the outcome of a game. And that’s why the truly great teams avoid putting themselves in that position very often.
*All win probabilities mentioned here are not adjusted for the fact that objectively, the best guess was that BYU had about a 70% chance to win the game before it started. Since I just want to compare the relative impact of Harris’s call and Wesley’s free throw misses, there is no need to make adjustments.
**A very small fraction of this figure belongs to Wesley’s teammates for not rebounding his misses.