Poor replay cost Colorado; here’s how to fix it

After a blown replay review by referees overturned Colorado’s game-winning buzzer beater and sent Thursday night’s game against No. 3 Arizona into overtime, where the Wildcats averted the Buffaloes’ upset bid, the first comparison that came to mind was an obvious one.

It was less than four months ago when Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson heaved a last-second Hail Mary into the end zone against the Green Bay Packers. Even though the pass was clearly intercepted by the Packers’ M.D. Jennings, the officials blew the call both on the field and in the replay booth. The referees gave the Seahawks a victory they shouldn’t have gotten, and this weekend, the Packers are playing in a first-round playoff game they could have avoided with a bye week had they had one more win on their ledger.

The call that took away the Packers’ victory that September night was every bit as incorrect as the call that took away the Buffaloes’ victory Thursday night. Don’t pay attention to the Pac-12’s statement Friday that stood by the bad call; that statement was as much an act of willful ignorance to quiet a controversy as it was an act of loyalty to their refs.

Whereas the botched NFL call played into the playoff picture, the botched college hoops call could very well play into the March Madness picture for a good Colorado team that ought to finish toward the top of the Pac-12.

Here’s the difference: Whereas the larger issue with that botched Packers call was as obvious as the interception itself — the NFL’s lockout of their referees had reached a tipping point with those replacement refs, and the lockout needed to end — the larger issue with Thursday’s college basketball blunder is a little more difficult to decipher.

Remember the immediate reaction after the Packers play? Twitter and the blogosphere exploded. President Obama used his White House pedestal to nudge the NFL toward getting the real refs back; so did vice presidential candidate (and Wisconsin congressman) Paul Ryan. Days later, what had been an intractable labor dispute was resolved and the real refs were back.

But the Colorado 3-pointer that wasn’t? It’s not such a black-and-white issue — though if you look closer, like the referees tried to do Thursday night when they peered at the replay screen for an eternity, there is definitely a bigger issue at play than incompetence.

Here was the situation: An upstart Colorado squad that hadn’t beaten a top-five team on the road in four decades had third-ranked Arizona on the ropes. The Buffaloes had quieted the McKale Center crowd early, going up 17 points in the first half, and were still up 16 with 12:40 left in the second half. As the clock wound down, the Wildcats mounted a furious comeback, just as they had last month when they came back from down six with a minute left to beat then-undefeated Florida.

In the final 1:35 on Thursday, Arizona outscored Colorado 10-2, tying it 80-80 on a pair of free throws by Mark Lyons with 9.2 seconds left. It was the first time the Wildcats hadn’t trailed since they were up 5-4 less than three minutes into the game.

Colorado then inbounded and brought the ball up the court. Senior guard Sabatino Chen lofted a deep 3-pointer at the buzzer — not a good shot, by any means — and, amazingly, banked it in. The Buffaloes began celebrating their 83-80 upset.

Not so fast. Referees huddled around a courtside monitor. Television replays appeared to show that the ball left Chen’s fingertips with 0.1 seconds left. On their courtside monitor, the referees apparently saw something else, though it by no means could have been the definitive evidence they needed to overturn the call on the court that Chen’s 3-pointer counted.

The replay was there. The referees looked at it. And the referees screwed it up. Arizona dominated in overtime, winning 92-83, and preserved an undefeated (*) record.

Afterward, Colorado coach Tad Boyle watched the replay. He was incensed.

“Get rid of instant replay,” Boyle told ESPN’s Andy Katz. “In basketball, football, human error is part of our game. If human error is part of the game, let the officials call the game. Players, coaches and officials will make mistakes. It’s part of the game. … We spend all this money on replays and we still can’t get it right. Get rid of it.”

This was emotion speaking. Boyle’s team had just been robbed of a win it rightfully deserved. But hidden in his emotion was a very logical thought: We have instant replay to get the closest of calls correct In this case, instant replay took a very close call that had been correct and made it incorrect; what’s the point of instant replay if it does the opposite of what it should?

And this is where the bigger issue lies. ESPN’s game crew was using standard-definition television for the courtside television, not high-definition television, as Katz reported on Twitter. This is not something that’s consistent around college basketball conferences. The director of athletic facilities and game operations at Duke tweeted Thursday night that the ACC upgraded all of its venues over the summer; as long as games are broadcast in HD, the courtside television referees use for replay are in HD.

Yes, this seems pretty ridiculous. The only time you need to review a call is if it’s close. If a close call determines the outcome of a game, it’s that much more important to get it right. A call couldn’t be much closer than Chen’s shot Thursday night. Yet, using substandard equipment, the referees botched a call that viewers at home saw correctly as a game-winning buzzer beater.

There are two issues here that need to be addressed, and quickly. The first is that referees need to have equipment for replay reviews that is at least as good as viewers at home do. Don’t abolish replay, as Boyle suggested; just make replay do what it’s supposed to do. This seems to be an institutional problem. Yes, it’s a far smaller problem than the NFL replacement referee problem that caught our president’s attention. but it’s still something that needs to be corrected.

The second issue? When the NCAA tournament selection committee is looking at which teams to select in March, they need to consider Colorado’s buzzer-beating upset victory over the third-ranked team in the nation back in January. Because even though the Buffaloes’ record won’t count it as a victory, that’s exactly what it was. An official’s botched call in January need not knock a team off the bubble in March.