Officially speaking, UConn got a free pass into today

March 26, 2006|By PETER SCHMUCK

WASHINGTON — Washington-- --If memory serves, March Madness began this year with a huge controversy over the inclusion of so many teams from mid-major conferences ... and CBS basketball commentators Billy Packer and Jim Nantz courageously defending the sense of entitlement that has developed among the elite programs around the country.

The argument over who really deserves to be in the 65-team field for the NCAA tournament is intrinsic to the event -- and explains how Selection Sunday has become a major television landmark -- but the argument that the Missouri Valley Conference couldn't possibly deserve as many berths in the Big Dance as the ACC was something entirely different.

This is old news, of course, but I bring up this example of class struggle in big-time college sports to provide some perspective as I grapple with a question that bugged me all the way home from Verizon Center early yesterday morning.

Who deserves to be in today's Elite Eight showdown more -- upstart mid-major representative George Mason or a University of Connecticut team that seems to show up in the later rounds of the tournament every year?

If you're a fan of the Big East, you're not going to like my opinion, because I think UConn got a free pass into this afternoon's game against the surprising Patriots and likely will parlay it into coach Jim Calhoun's third NCAA title.

The fifth-seeded Washington Huskies had Friday night's game pretty much under control until a string of questionable calls yanked one of the best players in the country off the court for much of the second half and led to Washington playing an overtime period with a seldom-used bench kid running the point.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Everybody gets their share of good calls and bad calls. That's just college hoops. But the conspiracy theorist in me saw something different ... something a little more insidious.

When Pac-10 Player of the Year Brandon Roy got his third and fourth fouls on the same disputed play, forcing him to the sideline for seven momentum-shifting minutes, I had a pretty good idea where this game was going.

Then there was the phantom foul that knocked Washington point guard Justin Dentmon out of the game at crunch time and the critical goaltending call that wasn't made (obvious even before the five replays) and, frankly, I wondered if that shadowy guy up in the booth on the new prime-time game show Deal or No Deal had called down to Howie Mandel and told him to remind the officials that UConn is sort of from the New York area and this Cinderella stuff is getting out of hand.

Sure I'm paranoid, but that doesn't mean there aren't a bunch of young journalists coming out of college who would just love to steal my job.

If you went to bed at a reasonable hour Friday night, you probably didn't see the play that knocked Roy out of the game for seven minutes. He apparently fouled UConn forward (and Baltimore product) Rudy Gay, which sparked some angry words between them and prompted official John Higgins to call a double technical to cool off the situation.

It wasn't exactly equal justice, since the double foul put Roy one away from fouling out. Washington hung tough without him, but his lengthy absence and the fact that he had to play more tentatively the rest of the way surely could have made the difference between victory and defeat ... especially since UConn needed an acrobatic three-pointer from Rashad Anderson with 1.8 seconds left in regulation to send the game into overtime.

It's not just me. Even Calhoun hinted after the game that Higgins had overreacted to the sharp words between Roy and Gay, though it's easy to be gracious when you're on the way to the Elite Eight.

"I'm not going to have a discussion and have a fine come back to UConn," he said. "But the bottom line is that I let the kids play on, kids are going to get emotional in a game like that and I don't think that Brandon or Rudy were trying to do anything more."

If I were Washington coach Lorenzo Romar, I would have been shouting from the mountaintop that my team got the shaft, but I've always been a petty guy who doesn't see the big picture. Lorenzo is a class guy who maintained his poise and didn't level a single criticism at the refs after what had to be a horribly disappointing loss.

"You're going to get calls, you're not going to get calls," he said. "That's part of the game. We had our chances."

I've never held college mascots to a particularly high standard of costume credibility, but Washington's "Harry Husky" looked more like some kind of cartoon bear than a hearty sled dog. If there were an Iditarod for guys in Husky costumes, I think the UConn mascot would win paws down.

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