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Down 2 points, with a little more than a minute left in overtime of the NCAA championship game, the basketball was poked out of Davide Moretti’s hand. And in the ultimate game, at the ultimate moment, a play that could very well ultimately determine the championship of college basketball was decided based on a standard that I, nor anyone else watching basketball, had never seen before.
There were 6,043 NCAA Division I men’s basketball games played this season. There were an additional 67 in the NCAA Tournament, plus 73 in various and sundry second- to fourth-tier postseason tournaments. I’d wager that none have included an instant replay that was used in quite this way.
Texas Tech’s Moretti had gained partial control of a loose basketball, and the University of Virginia’s swifter, bigger, faster De’Andre Hunter poked at the ball while it was under Moretti’s control, causing it to go out of bounds without hitting any other part of Moretti’s body. The call on the court, an obvious one to all observers, was that Hunter’s jab caused the ball to skitter out of bounds, as a million jabs in a million games of basketball have caused a million balls to skitter over the sidelines of playgrounds, YMCA gyms, and, yes, even a domed football stadium during the culmination of this 6,000-plus-game season.
By NCAA rule, instant replay can be used if there is any question of possession within the last two minutes of a game or the last two minutes of overtime (but oddly not during the first three minutes of overtime, which actually occur after the last two minutes of regulation). It didn’t seem as if possession were a question. But upon further review, a curious detail emerged, one that had been undetectable to the naked eye.
Moretti’s finger seems to have been in contact with the ball after Hunter jabbed it away. Try this experiment at home, and get someone to record it with your iPhone on slo-mo. Hold a small object between your right thumb and forefinger; I used a soup cracker. Poke it with your left forefinger. You will see, depending on how thorough the poke is, the last body part to touch the object might be your left “poking” finger, or it could be your right “holding” finger. I used a pretty big bag of soup crackers (Hale and Hearty is generous) and could get different results depending on the follow-through of my poke and the speed of my release. Also, the quality and angle of the slow-motion feature affected my perceptions.
On such distinctions, a national championship hinged.
This exercise in Talmudic HDTV should never have come to be. The standard for instant replay reviews should be that a call must not be overturned if the evidence gleaned during instant replay would be completely undiscernible to the naked eye.
There is a similar play in baseball that causes the anti-replay forces to howl. A base runner attempts a steal and clearly beats the ball to the base and slides in safely. But as the runner’s body slides over the base, but not beyond, there might be—and instant replay has determined that there sometimes is—a brief moment when the base runner is not in contact with the base. In this case, we should consider the runner to be safe, not out, considering that the fact of his outness necessarily depends on machine superseeing.
Any call that depends on superseeing, like the poked ball play in Monday night’s game, should not be celebrated as “right.” What the CBS announcing crew hailed as the “right” call is actually an inversion of the usual and proper basketball call, which would have awarded possession to the poked, not the poker. The usual and proper call would be enforced without incident or question 100 percent of the time if it weren’t for high-res, slo-mo technology.
Imagine a pickup game played by the most highly ethical players, who will always bend over backward so as not to get an unfair advantage. For instance, a team of Hindu monks who have vowed Satya, or truth, but also have mad hops. There is a poke play similar to the one committed in Monday’s championship game. I posit that none of the players, even the most truthful and holy among them, would offer, “You know, on the way out of my hand, the ball might have been in contact with my finger.” Having run the soup cracker version of the experiment, I do not even believe it is possible to perceive, via the sense of touch or sight, contact with the pinky, post-poke.
There is another complication to the NCAA instant replay rule. The all-seeing supertechnology is only deployed in the last two minutes. In a game where every possession counts, the possessions inside the two-minute replay window count a lot more than those outside that window. You could argue that this is regrettable but fair, insofar as it’s impractical to commit to time-consuming replay on every play in what should be an exercise in entertainment. If you were to take out the element of delay, a decent case could be made for using instant replay reviews for all 40 minutes of a game. But to have 5 percent of a regulation game, or 8.9 percent of a single-overtime game, be subject to superseeing—which is to say, if you’re being honest, to be governed by an entirely different set of standards—is crazy.
Perhaps the prominence of the Moretti Fingertip Fiasco will cause referees to attempt to discern real-time pinky plays. But it will be impossible to do so. So the de jure standard will be that a clear poke that causes the ball to go out of bounds during the first 38 minutes will be awarded to the pokee’s team, but a clear poke that causes the ball to go out of bounds during the final two minutes may well be awarded to the poker’s team.
The NCAA Tournament is an entertainment property valued at approximately $1 billion per year played by uncompensated teenagers. I cannot call the weird instant replay rule the most unjust thing about the sport. It is just the most eminently correctable thing that threatens the entertainment value of the sport. Which is to say, it is the thing that the NCAA should address in pursuit of its highest ideal: self-interest.