Now is the time for Big East Commissioner Dave Gavitt to come to the aid of his conference.
Georgetown and Pittsburgh played what passed for a basketball game at Capital Centre last night. The Hoyas won, 62-57, not that big a surprise in spite of Pitt's silly No. 2 ranking. The Panthers without academic casualties Rod Brookin and Mike Goodson are a good team but Coach Paul Evans wasn't far wrong when he said, "The lineup we're playing, we aren't even No. 22 much less No. 2."
But that is not the issue here. There are plenty more games that will decide who is and is not the best in this league. But before any more of them are played, Gavitt should act. A one-sentence message to all nine league coaches would suffice: "The next player who throws a punch in this league is suspended for 10 games -- minimum."
Last night, it took less than nine minutes for punches to be thrown. There is no sense in pointing fingers. The officials ejected Georgetown's Mark Tillmon, probably as much because he was the last player brought under control as anything else. Georgetown people will claim that Nate Bailey and Jerome Lane were responsible; Pitt people will say it was Tillmon's fault.
No matter. Now, before going any further, let it be said that John Thompson's assessment of this fight, as with most others, is correct. "I've never seen a basketball fight where anyone got hurt," the Georgetown coach said. "In my neighborhood that wasn't any fight at all. These kids will see each other on the street tomorrow and stop and say, 'How you doin'?' It isn't that big a deal."
Thompson paused. "Don't get me wrong. I don't like to see fighting. I don't like seeing the kids going out on the floor, because when they do, I get the technical. We play physical, we always have. But woofing is one thing, punching is another."
Exactly. Every coach in the Big East complains about Georgetown's physical play. The Hoyas play defense with their hands, they bang inside and, sometimes, they play dirty. But they aren't alone. It happens everywhere, especially in this league.
This is where Gavitt comes in. Gavitt, correctly, has received reams of praise for his role in building the Big East into a power. But he hasn't done enough to prevent incidents like the one last night. Gavitt is very conscious of the conference's image. Last September, he called a meeting of the league's assistant coaches to try to stop the backbiting that has gone on in recruiting in recent years. Gavitt didn't want to see the Big East losing top players to other leagues because coaches were tearing each other apart.
Okay, fine. Gavitt is paid to promote the league and he does a fine job -- although he shouldn't be doing commentary on league telecasts. What would he have said about last night? That both teams were playing hard?
They were. The three officials, Larry Lembo, Jim Burr and Jody Silvester, knew exactly what they were dealing with when the game started. Two minutes into the game, Lane and Perry McDonald started woofing at each other on the foul line. Lembo intervened right away. "Hey, guys, don't talk to each other, please," he said -- twice. "Come on," he added, "just play basketball."
They didn't, though. And, since officials are always getting ripped, let's give them some credit here. If they had not handled the game the way they did, it might have gotten much worse than it did. Lembo in particular did a superb job of bringing Tillmon under control during the fight.
The three blew their whistles every time someone even looked mean during the rest of the half and that seemed to bring things back under control. The second half, though not pretty, at least resembled a basketball game.
Thompson and Evans don't want to hear this. Thompson, naturally, didn't think Tillmon should have been ejected and he thought -- correctly -- that he shouldn't have been assessed a technical for coming out of the coach's box when the clock failed to run with 22 seconds left. Evans thought the officials let Georgetown get away with too much hand-checking early and that led to the fight. And, he was so furious when Burr didn't call Bobby Winston for a travel that he drew two technicals while screaming at him with 29 seconds left.
Evans would have gotten a third tech if Lane, who literally did everything there was to do in this game, hadn't grabbed Lembo in mid-T signal and talked him out of calling the last one. It may have been the first intercepted technical in history.
In short, the officials weren't perfect. Still, they were the real heroes.
They saved the league from a truly embarrassing night. As it was, it was just sad. Now it is Gavitt's turn. He should step in and ban fighting by saying anyone who fights will be banned. If coaches and players know they're going to sit out 10 games for throwing a punch, they'll just woof and leave it at that.
And while Gavitt is at it, he ought to ban beer sales at Big East games. Last night, when the fight broke out on the court, another one broke out in the stands. Because the Big East plays almost all its games off campus, it is not subjected to the NCAA's ban on alcoholic beverage sales. Gavitt should enforce it anyway. Although students receive a lot of attention for their antics during a game -- not so at Capital Centre since the Georgetown students have the worst seats in the house -- they are usually having good fun. The truly ugly actors are beered-up alumni.
It is time to get rid of the beer and the fighting -- on and off the floor. In a league with this much talent, referees shouldn't have to be heroes. Last night, they had little choice.