Heartbeat of the Heartland: Jay Bilas, Bob Huggins and Big 12 Referees


Jay Bilas is a former Duke player and assistant coach. He’s also a lawyer, which means there are three reasons to strongly dislike him. The ESPN college basketball analyst often has an “of course I’m right” smugness when weighing in on hoops issues.

But you’ve gotta love a talking head who is outspoken when calling out the NCAA’s hypocrisies and chomping on the hand that feeds him well. Personally, I’m also supportive when he calls out game officials for missing calls or poor judgment.

This happened at least four times during Saturday’s West Virginia-Kansas game. John Higgins, James Luckie and Keith Kimble wore the stripes and whistles; Higgins and Luckie are veterans of Final Fours. In the first half Bilas noted that Higgins told WVU’s James Bolden not to wrap his arms around KU’s Malik Newman as the Mountaineers pressed. Bilas accurately pointed out that should have been a foul not a warning. As the game unfolded, Bilas chastised the crew for other mistakes. Admittedly, some of those were revealed thanks to slow-motion replays which makes everyone – especially Your Veteran Scribe – a perfect official.

This leads us to the outcome in Allen Fieldhouse. Kansas trailed by 12 with 10 minutes to play but rallied to beat the Mountaineers, 77-69. If you’re a Rock Chalk fan, it was another sweet comeback. If you’re favorite song is “Country Roads” then you’re singing the song “Refs Suck.” Kansas attempted 35 free throws, making 26. West Virginia attempted two. One, two. The Mountaineers had a 42-21 edge in 3-point scoring and lost by eight.

“I’ve been doing this 40 years,” WVU’s Bob Huggins said. “I don’t think I’ve ever been in a game where we shot two free throws. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a game where the disparity was 35-2. I’ve never been in a game like that.”

He was in the game until eight seconds remained. Huggins protested what he thought was an uncalled foul with his team trailing by four and earned an ejection with two technical fouls.

When Texas Tech lost at Baylor Saturday night, Kansas found itself tied for first in the Big 12 standings. The Jayhawks are a flawed team that needs much to go right for them to win against the league’s top teams. There has always been the theory that the key to KU’s 13 consecutive regular-season titles is a favorable whistle at home. Such a stark, lopsided stat – 35-2 free throw attempts – had many saying, “See, told ya.”

Huggins is famous for coaching the kind of tough defense that comes close to physical assault. The Mountaineers foul. A lot. In road games, WVU averages 23 fouls, its opponents 17. Saturday, West Virginia was called for 26 fouls, Kansas 14. As with any debate, there are two sides. And debates only have winners in speech class. So, here are the debate points.

  • Starting with the foul differential – four of the fouls called on WVU came in the final seconds as it was desperation time plus the two techs on Huggins counted toward the total. A 22-14 disparity doesn’t raise eyebrows, especially when the Mountaineers are involved.
  • WVU is often jump-shot challenged but Saturday the Mountaineers made 14-of-26 from 3-point range. At times, it appeared that they had fell in love with the three and when you’re making over 50 percent, why not. But of their 61 shots (14 more than KU), only six were at the rim. West Virginia didn’t drive to create fouls, nor did they try to establish a low-post game.
  • As Bilas pointed out, the officiating crew missed at least four fouls that could have been called on West Virginia. So, it could have been worse. KU’s Devonte’ Graham said the refs didn’t call all the fouls on WVU that they could have.
  • With a 12-point lead and 10 minutes to go, the Mountaineers decided to bleed the clock. Most their possessions involved senior guard Jevon Carter dribbling 35 feet from the basket before WVU took a rushed shot. The Mountaineers missed 14 of their last 16 shots, including seven 3-pointers. They didn’t put pressure on KU’s defense.
  • Carter and fellow senior Daxter Miles Jr. form one of the most experienced backcourts in the nation. Miles finished with 22, draining 6-of-9 from three. Carter scored 15 but they combined for nine turnovers. Miles twice threw bad passes when he rose for a three but changed his mind to pass instead. Carter missed a free throw after converting a layup that would have stretched WVU’s lead to 64-57 with 4:33 to play. Trailing by two with 1:09 to play, Miles missed the front end of a one-and-one so badly he committed a lane violation trying to chase the shot.

Miles was disconsolate after the game and wanted to shoulder the blame for the loss. Huggins said he told his players it wasn’t their fault that they lost. It wasn’t the officials’ fault, either. Your Veteran Scribe watched the game and never thought that WVU was getting screwed. For the first 30 minutes, the Mountaineers played well enough to beat anybody. As they’ve often do against Kansas, they gacked the final 10 minutes by settling for jump shots.

Earlier this season, when Tennessee lost at Missouri – when the Tigers were only whistled for two fouls in a half, Vols coach (and former Texas coach) Rick Barnes was asked if he had ever had something like that happen. He endeared himself to Mizzou fans by answering, “Every time we went to Kansas, yeah, that happened.”

Just as a by the way: Monday night Kansas rock chalked Oklahoma, 104-74. The Sooners attempted 13 free throws, the Jayhawks … had 11 attempts.

Research by Jeff Eisenberg of Yahoo!Sports indicates that the perception Kansas gets the whistle edge isn’t accurate. With help from KenPom.com, Eisenberg deduced that over the last 13 seasons, the Jayhawks average about two more free throw attempts in Big 12 home games as they do in road games. That’s hardly enough of an edge to matter. And KenPom ranks KU as 38th in Division in his home-foul advantage model.

“I’m not trying to be a smartass,” Huggins said after Saturday’s game. “But I’m pissed … Officials want to be part of the game, but they don’t want to be part of the game that has to answer. Why aren’t they in here answering your questions? We’re going to bring 19 and 21-year-old kids in here that don’t get paid and you’re going to ask them questions. You’re going to ask [Miles] ‘Why didn’t you shoot it?’ They don’t want to get asked ‘Why didn’t you call this, why didn’t you call that?’”

That sort of accountability will never happen. College coaches don’t get much if any input regarding these types of issues. Media and fans share Huggins’ frustration that the officials run off the court and aren’t held accountable. College basketball officials make dozens of mistakes each game; perfection or even 90 percent of perfection is impossible. The frustration of coaches, the media and the fans is that the refs get to run off the court without being accountable.

Huggins was asked if he mentioned the foul shooting discrepancy to the officials after his ejection. He did. The response? “There was none.”

Kansas State’s Bruce Weber was frustrated with the officiating after the Wildcats lost at Kansas and he implored the media to “ask Fran Fraschilla,” the ESPN analyst who knows the Big 12 better than anyone. Maybe Huggins should call Jay Bilas.