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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Commentary: The NCAA’s incompetence is an unfair stain on women’s basketball

The Texas Longhorns face the Gonzaga Bulldogs in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament at the Moda Center in Portland last Friday.  (Tribune News Service)
By Sally Jenkins Washington Post

Even now, the women’s NCAA basketball tournament, that ceiling-rupturing Roman candle of an event, is still being treated with a combination of incompetence and indifference by its stagers. Somebody, multiple people actually, didn’t care enough to make sure the Sweet 16 court in Portland had the right proportions. What else did they misdraw with such insulting lack of care? The world wonders. Don’t think for a second that small discrepancy in 3-point lines didn’t matter. Just because something is petty doesn’t make it unimportant. Actually, it’s all the more belittling.

“I hate to say this,” Texas coach Vic Schaefer said afterward, “but I have a lot of colleagues who would say, ‘Only in women’s basketball.’ It’s a shame, really, that it even happened.”

What a debacle. What a humiliating televised spectacle, as North Carolina State’s Wes Moore and Texas’s Schaefer walked off distances in their loafers and squinted at those three-point arcs that didn’t match. Imagine Dan Hurley’s reaction in such a situation. Both women’s coaches were politic afterward, as the good and patient people in this game always are, reluctant to hurt the event they’ve built with so little help. Five games were played on that court, and there is no replaying them. But of course it mattered. It mattered reputationally, it mattered competitively and it was an inexcusable injustice to everyone concerned.

And it was just the latest instance of bureaucratic haplessness. A ref named Tommi Paris had to be peeled off an early stage game between N.C. State and Chattanooga when it was discovered late that she had a conflict – namely, she received a degree from Chattanooga. Utah was housed fully 30 miles from its Spokane competition site in Coeur d’Alene – an area notorious as the longtime home of the Aryan Nations. Surprise: Players were accosted by revving pickup truckers yelling racial slurs at them and had to be moved for safety. Notre Dame’s Hannah Hidalgo was benched by a martinet ref in the Sweet 16 for more than 4 minutes, ordered to remove a diamond stud in her nose that she had worn all season without penalty, including in the earlier rounds.

Even now, these things keep happening. Even now, when the NCAA knew that this tournament would be watched to an unprecedented degree by record large audiences with newfound passion. The question of how such a thing as the court foul-up could happen remains to be answered in terms of specifics – the names of the corner cutters at Connor Sports, the company that makes, ships and installs the NCAA’s logoed tournament courts, who did such shabby, inattentive work. But the larger culpability is obvious from the passivity of the NCAA’s statement when it was discovered.

“The NCAA was notified today that the 3-point lines on the court at Moda Center in Portland are not the same distance,” the organization’s statement read. “The court will be corrected before tomorrow’s game in Portland. The NCAA regrets the error was not discovered sooner.”

Notified? Wasn’t it the NCAA’s job to notice, rather than be notified?

That shoddily painted court unquestionably warped players’ shooting perspectives and hurt their efficiency. According to ESPN’s stats tracking, across five games teams shot just 29 percent from the 3-point line that was too shallow, compared to 33 percent from the standard 3-point line. A four percent advantage from the 3? That’s a massive difference. And it almost unquestionably affected final scores.

Think about it. What effect did it have on momentum, the dynamic shifts in the games? Timing mattered. A team that had to play offense on the suboptimal end in the second half was at a serious, quantifiable disadvantage. Holding a lead or completing a comeback was undeniably tougher, and such a difference in a close game is a chasm.

In the Sweet 16, Stanford led N.C. State by 10 after the first half. In the second half, after switching sides, the Cardinal made just 2-of-13 3-point attempts. Meanwhile the Wolfpack surged, hitting 50 percent from behind the arc in the second half. Take nothing away from the Wolfpack; they earned the victory. But the circumstances befouled the result, and that was unfair to all.

“Who knows how much it could impact a team?” Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer wrote in an email, replying to a query. “You miss shots, people get frustrated, etc. Either way, it is shoddy workmanship and a lack of accountability. When you go to the gym you trust that the lines are correct and the basket is at the right height. Not a good look.”

It’s long past time for the NCAA to take some self-accountability, and fix the disregarded, underfunded system that creates such amateur hour errors around an event that is becoming one of its most valuable and prestigious.