As a fan of a team mired in the cellar of the Big Ten for three straight years and counting, it's been hard to get emotions worked up over losses these days; if I'm not going to spend time caring about Purdue holding Iowa to 40 points in 40 minutes, there probably aren't scenarios in which I care about any loss to any team ahead of Iowa in the standings (which includes every team whose name doesn't rhyme with Schlindiana or Ben's Freight).
And yet, watching Iowa's leads evaporate against Michigan--twice!--it's hard not to be infuriated at the manner in which the Hawkeyes dropped this contest, 80-78. While it's breaking no new intellectual ground to ever complain about the officiating in a game (particularly one worked by Ed Hightower and Ted Valentine), that's still clearly the story of the game tonight.
We're not stupid enough to think that Hightower and Valentine were somehow actively conspiring against Iowa; not only is Michigan plainly unworthy of a conspiratorial effort (see: not a tournament team), but that theory would require the supposition that the two men are actually capable of calling a good game and just choose not to. That's a fantasy.
Further, it's not the case that all the calls went against Iowa for the balance of the game. There were several calls that seemed to be a whistle just blown at random, and a good amount of them were in Iowa's favor. This is what happens in a Hightower/Valentine game.
When the endgame comes, however, one wants the reassurance that the game will, at the very least, be called in an even fashion, that one level of contact either is or isn't a foul on both sides of the court, and that Obvious Calls will be made instead of the all-too-common whistle-swallowing as time expires. Iowa got that in the first half when Aaron Fuller was hacked in the middle of attempting a last-second shot.
Iowa did not get that, however, at the end of regulation--and it cost them the game.
That's not to say that Michigan's comeback in the second half was all the referees' doing, mind you; far from it. DeShawn Sims DeServes credit for drawing the game back within two points on an unconscionable and-1 from Devan Bawinkel, who shouldn't be guarding Sims even if masked men have guns at the heads of sundry Bawinkel family members. Then, after Iowa funneled the ball to a 56% free throw shooter who hadn't been at the line all game long (we're looking at you, Cully Payne) with predictable results, Sims hit a contested three to tie the game with just seconds remaining. Those were Michigan's accomplishments alone.
And yet, there was Fuller driving to the basket with three seconds and ticking, and he seemed to draw contact from two Michigan players, all while Valentine did something other than blow the whistle. We'd have named the Michigan players, mind you, but the BTN didn't provide a single replay between the horn and the first overtime; by comparison, they showed Sims' three (complete with slow-motion and game clock) about seven hundred times. That's rather damning, considering the fact that a clean block on that play would have absolutely been the play of the game--even moreso than Sims' three-pointer immediately prior.
[UPDATE: Friend of the Pants Scott Dochterman says he didn't see a foul from the truck on the play, from multiple angles. If that's true, and we absolutely do not doubt his sincerity, the decision not to air replays is worse for a different reason. Everyone wants to see a game-deciding play more than once. What good does it do not to show it again if it's clean? Also, I'm just grumbly enough to call him a liar until tomorrow morning. Hmph.]
The overtime was equally inconsistent; Fuller drew two legitimate fouls early on that were correctly called, and the foul on Eric May's jumper in the paint late in the OT was a little dicey but not egregious. Still, Matt Gatens' shooting foul on Manny Harris in overtime was a joke--Gatens' hand wasn't anywhere near making undue contact with Harris on the play--and Gatens was denied a much easier call as he drove to the hoop late in the game with Iowa down three. And that was the game.
Credit must go to Fuller and Gatens even before their game-ending shots weren't properly called--they are our men of the match after both turning in their best performances of the season. Fuller had 30 points on 13 shots from the field (and only 11 attempted FTs), to say nothing of his 13 rebounds. Meanwhile, Gatens hit his first five three-pointers--often contested and off his own dribble--and turned in 21 points, 8 rebounds, and 4 assists on 13 shots. Fuller played 42 minutes, and Gatens all 45. They are the leaders of this team, succeeding in the face of the defenses' focus, and both deserve captaincy for next season.
At any rate, it was a far better game to watch than the first time Iowa faced Michigan; that was an abomination of the highest order. This, I suppose, is either a function of the game being at Carver or of Iowa's slow improvement. Probably both; the two are hardly mutually exclusive.
But we'll just point out one thing: last season's series between Iowa and Michigan were eerily similar, except Iowa won the overtime game when it was at Carver. The two teams met again in the BTT, and Michigan won by about 80 points. Don't be too quick to rule that out if the teams meet in the conference tourney again; the Wolverines are definitely more talented than the Hawkeyes. Improvement is not linear, after all.
Improvement is, however, dependent on a positive off-season, and Todd Lickliter simply hasn't had one yet. If this is the first, a +.500 season is to be expected next season. Roll your eyes if you must at that, but firing him instead isn't going to accelerate that curve one bit.
And fuck Ted Valentine.