UK Men's Basketball

‘Corrupt Arena’? End of A&M game revives debate about UK’s home-court ‘mystique’

Does basketball have the equivalent of pro football’s “uncatchable pass,” where pass interference isn’t pass interference because the receiver could not have caught the ball?

Inquiring minds wanted to know after watching the final seconds of Kentucky’s 74-73 victory over Texas A&M on Tuesday.

The ending also raised a more sensitive question: Does a dynasty program like Kentucky get an inherent advantage in home-court officiating?

To review: Trailing 74-73, A&M got a final chance to win when PJ Washington missed two free throws with 3.9 seconds left. Big man Tyler Davis, the game’s leading scorer with 21 points, had gotten himself in position near the opposite basket. A long desperation pass sailed high over his head and out of bounds.

Replays showed the UK defender, Wenyen Gabriel, with an arm across Davis’ chest. Gabriel’s arm could have hindered and/or distracted Davis as he turned to try to catch the pass. Davis fell to the court. The ball flew out of bounds. There was no call. Game over.

Afterward, A&M Coach Billy Kennedy said that his player, Davis presumably, described the contact with Gabriel as “a bear hug,” which might have been laying it on a bit thick.

Byron Dinkins (remember that name?) was watching the telecast.

“It looked clear that the kid had him around the waist,” Dinkins said of Gabriel’s defense. “I just said, ‘You won’t get that call.’”

Dinkins knows about calls in Rupp Arena. Thirty seasons ago, he was Davis. Only more so. With three seconds left and his team trailing by a point, he cut down the lane and had only to take an inbounds pass at the basket and lay the ball in to give North Carolina-Charlotte, as the school was then known, a victory over No. 1 Kentucky. But on the catch, UK’s desperate defender, Ed Davender, pushed Dinkins out of bounds. The referee called walking. Kentucky won.

After the game, Davender apologized, Dinkins said. And Jeff Mullins, then UNC-Charlotte’s coach, said that UK fans came up to him the next day and apologized. And referee Don Ferguson later wrote him a letter of apology.

As he watched Kentucky beat Texas A&M, Dinkins thought of alternative names he had heard for UK’s home court. For instance, Corrupt Arena.

“You’re not surprised that it didn’t get called,” he said of the ending to the UK-A&M game. “Maybe you’d be more surprised if it did get called.”

The Southeastern Conference’s coordinator of officials, Mark Whitehead, deferred questions to the league office.

The idea of Kentucky getting calls has a long history. When he was Georgia coach, Hugh Durham spoke of a Blue mist that altered reality and made referees play to the crowd when making a call in UK’s favor. When he was Alabama coach, Wimp Sanderson said it was against the rules for Kentucky to lose at home. And in 2010, the SEC fined then-Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury $30,000 for suggesting that the league looked kindly on Kentucky winning.

It all sounds familiar to longtime SEC referee John Clougherty.

“I dealt with that in my tenure as supervisor (of officials for the Atlantic Coast Conference),” he said. “That Carolina and Duke got all the calls. … Coaches would say to me that they believed that privately. But they never took it to the media.”

Clougherty did not see the ending to the Kentucky-Texas A&M game. He stressed that any foul call in the final seconds of a close game should be indisputable.

“You need to defend that call,” he said. “It can’t be guesswork. If you make a call with three seconds left, then everybody should say, ‘OK, that’s a foul.’”

As for whether college basketball, like pro football, factors in whether a ball is catchable when deciding if a foul has been committed, Clougherty said, “No. Nothing. Zero.”

The SEC Network’s studio-based analysts seemed to think a foul occurred.

Jimmy Dykes used the football analogy. Of Gabriel’s defense on Davis, he said, “That’s a 15-yard penalty-automatic first down.”

To which Antoine Walker, the former UK player, said, “Not in Rupp Arena. Not in Rupp.”

That brought to mind something Tennessee Coach Rick Barnes said on an SEC teleconference Monday. A reporter asked him how he felt as Clemson coach taking his teams to play at North Carolina, where Clemson has never won.

“My whole concern when I was in the ACC was making sure the officiating was the way you wanted it to be,” he sad. “You just wanted a fair chance.”

When asked if Rupp Arena caused similar concerns, Barnes said, “I think it applies because there’s a mystique in all those places.” He included Kansas’ Allen Fieldhouse in that category.

Clougherty scoffed at the notion of a veteran official being influenced by the name on the jerseys or a large partisan crowd. But Mullins said that he believed there is a “psychic awareness” when games are played in venues like the Dean Dome and Rupp Arena. Coincidentally, UK Coach John Calipari tweeted more than once before the Texas A&M game asking fans to show up in large numbers.

Objectivity — or, if you prefer, psychic unawareness — would please Barnes.

“I think any coach would tell you, ‘All I want is the game officiated by the rules and not let emotion … get involved in it,’” the Tennessee coach said. “Not let the crowd’s emotion get involved.”

Momentum in basketball?

As Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver put it, momentum in baseball is the next day’s starting pitcher.

But what about basketball, which is, of course, a game of runs. Can a thrilling victory contain a carryover effect? Or is each game its own adventure?

LSU and Florida won in inspiring fashion last weekend. Tremont Waters made two three-pointers in the final seconds, the second from more than 30 feet in the final second, to give LSU a victory at Texas A&M. Florida’s Chris Chiozza stole a pass and raced to the game-winning layup in the final seconds at Missouri.

Both LSU and Florida welcomed the thought of a clutch play leading to a wave of momentum.

“Oh, potentially,” Florida Coach Mike White said on Monday’s SEC teleconference. “I hope so. I don’t want to count on it, though.”

Injuries have hampered Florida.

“Heck, we’re practicing with a couple of managers-turned-walk-ons to get to 10 (players) so we can go full court,” White said. Chiozza’s steal and winning layup “makes you feel a little better. Our guys get rewarded for resiliency, so I’m happy for our guys. Hopefully, it can provide some momentum moving forward.”

LSU is rebuilding, a process made more difficult by a challenging start to league play: Kentucky at home, then at Texas A&M and Arkansas, then home to Alabama.

“We needed something good to happen to us,” first-year coach Will Wade said. “And certainly I think (Waters’) shot can provide a jolt for us, can give us something we can build off of.

“When you’re trying to turn things around, you need a little bit of luck. You need something positive to happen. So your kids can see positive results from all their hard work.”

Momentum Part II

Four days after winning at Texas A&M, LSU won 75-54 at Arkansas. That snapped Arkansas’ 11-game home winning streak. It was the third-most lopsided home loss for Arkansas in its 25 seasons in Bud Walton Arena.

“We prepared really well, but I never saw this coming … honestly,” LSU Coach Will Wade said after the game. “I’m so proud of our players. … That’s as well as we’ve executed and was as disciplined as we’ve executed the plan all year long. We executed that thing to a ‘T.’”

With the lopsided victory, LSU (11-4, 2-1 in the SEC) topped its win total of last season (10-21) and equaled the number of league victories of last season (2-16).

Meanwhile, Florida beat Mississippi State 71-54 on Wednesday.

“We’re a lot scrappier than we were a month ago, and especially two months ago,” Coach Mike White said after the game. “It’s hit or miss at times, but we’re starting to be more consistent.”

South Sudan connection

UK forward Wenyen Gabriel and LSU big man Duop Reath share war-torn South Sudan as a place of birth.

When Gabriel was a pre-schooler, he and his family moved to Cairo, Egypt, and then Manchester, New Hampshire.

When Reath was 9, he and his family moved to Australia.

Gabriel said he made a point of speaking with Reath after UK played at LSU on Jan. 3. Gabriel said he hoped the two can stay in touch.

Egbunu update

There’s no indication that big man John Egbunu will be available when Florida plays at Kentucky next Saturday. He tore an ACL last season. A target date for his return remains a vague late January.

When asked Monday for an update, Florida Coach Mike White said he had asked his trainer that question earlier in the day.

“I asked … can I get him at practice a little bit this week?” White said on an SEC coaches teleconference. “And he said, ‘no.’”

Egbunu can give Florida needed presence around the basket. Egbunu is eager to play, said White, who added, “I’m as eager as anybody, of course.”

Happy birthday

To Georgia Coach Mark Fox. He turned 49 on Saturday. … To Shagari Alleyne. He turns 34 on Sunday (today). … To Jay Shidler. He turns 60 on Monday. … To Richard Madison. He turns 53 on Tuesday. … To Dirk Minniefield. He turns 57 on Wednesday. … To James Lee. He turns 62 on Wednesday.

Jerry Tipton: 859-231-3227, @JerryTipton