- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 4, 2001

MINNEAPOLIS. It usually is against the rules to hop on a player's back and then ride him after you have pushed your tray table and seat in their upright and locked positions.

Jason Williams claimed what appeared to be an aisle seat on Jason Gardner's back in the first half and consumed a soda and bag of peanuts while he was there.

Williams already was playing with two fouls and seemed destined to receive a third, which would not have been a favorable development for the Duke basketball team. Williams was arguably Duke's MVP this season, despite the hype that enveloped teammate Shane Battier.

Williams is a sophomore, Battier a senior, and sometimes, if there is the hint of a tie between teammates, the postseason accolades go to the fourth-year player, and nothing against Battier. He is a special player, just not necessarily the best of the best.

Anyway, after Williams adopted his unusual mode of transportation planes, trains and Gardner's back it was assumed that at least one of the three referees would feel an obligation to perform his duties.

But nothing happened. Williams removed himself from Gardner's back after retrieving his luggage, the throng inside the Metrodome groaned in disbelief, and the game proceeded.

Unofficially, Williams finished with seven fouls, two more than the rules permit, after two of his pushoffs while dribbling the ball went undetected as well.

Arizona coach Lute Olson noticed this particular leniency, if not a tilt overall toward Duke. This suggestion is not new. Duke is the darling of the college basketball world, and referees, as human as anyone else, are influenced by it.

"Frankly, I thought Jason Williams had fouled out twice with the pushoffs," Olson said.

Then, just so he wouldn't be accused of lacking grace in defeat, Olson said, "Officiating isn't what got us. It was Duke's play."

It doesn't hurt to have a few calls go your way, either, as Maryland could attest in the semifinals against Duke.

Williams was limited to 29 minutes against Arizona because of his foul problems, but he was on the floor when he had to be. It was his 3-pointer with 1:44 left that pushed the Wildcats off the ledge.

The tendency, particularly in basketball, is to minimize the officiating's impact on a game. To expound on the officiating is to trivialize the victor's moment.

But no game, from start to finish, is as dependent on the eyes and whims of officials as basketball is. Foul calls have a corrosive effect on teams as well as players. They don't keep track of team fouls for nothing. The sooner a team can draw seven fouls in a half from the opposition, the better it can be on offense, courtesy of good free throw shooting.

Unlike European coaches, who stick with their players regardless of the foul situation, most American coaches follow a predictable pattern. Two early fouls merit a seat on the bench, as was the case with Williams.

This tact is often counterproductive. A foul-plagued player is often one who fails to find his place in a game and not likely to find it because of the coach's urge to protect him, to save him. Williams endured this up-and-down process against Arizona, with sub-par results: 16 points on 5-for-15 shooting and six turnovers.

He hit a big shot at the end. Otherwise, from Duke's standpoint, he was only modestly instrumental in deciding the outcome of the game.

The way the referees called the game, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski probably could have avoided a few anxious moments in the waning minutes of the game if he had resisted the inclination to bench Williams at the times he did.

That's the thing with coaches and their Pavlovian dog-like response to fouls. How many times have you seen a player have a foul-induced off-game but not foul out? That is almost as maddening as the officiating. A player is afforded five fouls in college basketball. Don't be afraid to let a player use all of them.

A coach just might find that, over time, he'll get more minutes out of his key players and a higher performance level.

Yes, it is true that, on occasion, a player might depart from a game sooner than a coach likes.

But it is equally true that one of the objectives of coaching is to wrest as much production as possible out of a team.

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