To the casual observer, Kaleb Joseph simply was running out the clock in Wednesday night’s Creighton-Villanova game. The Wildcats had taken an insurmountable lead over the Bluejays in overtime, and Joseph’s last-second two-point field goal for Creighton did nothing to change the game’s result, a 66-59 Villanova victory.
Sports gamblers, however, are far from casual in their consumption. Villanova had opened up as a nine-point favorite, so Joseph’s shot scuttled that bet for anyone who jumped on that number (according to the Action Network’s Steve Pretrella, that opening spread didn’t last long and the Wildcats were 11-point favorites at tip-off; anyone who had Villanova at the higher point spread was a loser no matter what).
But thanks in part to the rise in online wagering, in-game betting has become much more prevalent. The second-half point spread, posted at halftime, was Villanova -7, so Joseph’s shot led to a push and a refund for anyone who had that bet. The second-half over/under total was 75.5, and Joseph’s shot meant that 76 points had been scored after halftime. Anyone who had the over rejoiced.
Everyone else howled, because Joseph’s shot clearly did not leave his hands until after the clock struck zero and should not have counted.
Had this been a one-off occurrence, the missed call in the Creighton-Villanova game probably would have been quickly forgotten or even gone completely unnoticed. But just two days earlier, almost the exact same scenario played out in Monday night’s Iowa State-Oklahoma game.
Trailing by four points with 3.5 seconds remaining, the Sooners’ Jamal Bieniemy raced upcourt and lofted up a three-pointer at the buzzer that went in and counted, even though replays showed that the ball still was in his hands when the clock hit zero. Anyone who had Cyclones -3 (the point spread at tip-off and the second-half spread) and under 146.5 (the total at tip-off) was seeing red, as Iowa State won by just one point in a game that featured 149 thanks to a shot that shouldn’t have counted.
Exacerbating matters in the gambling world was the fact that referee Roger Ayers was on the court for both games, and while he apparently gets high marks from some corners — a 2017 CBS Sports poll of more than 100 college basketball coaches found that he was considered the nation’s top referee — bettors now are eyeing him warily.
According to the most recent NCAA men’s basketball rule book, during regular season games the officials are required to consult video replay in such buzzer-beating situations “when necessary to determine the outcome.” Because the outcomes of both games were not affected in either instance, the referees were not required to review either buzzer-beater.
On Thursday, the NCAA announced that referees will review every buzzer-beater during the NCAA tournament, no matter the outcome, but on Friday the organization pulled back from that stance, saying a working group that’s studying the impact of gambling on college sports will instead take a look at the issue.
“To correct our previous comments, an NCAA membership ad hoc committee examining sports wagering will work with appropriate standing membership committees, specifically playing rules, to direct review of all NCAA polices that might be impacted by the new gambling environment in regular season and postseason play, including reviews of last-second shots,” the NCAA said in a statement. “This action is in keeping with our commitment to maintain the integrity of the games.”
Neither shot would have garnered much notice five years ago, except maybe at a Las Vegas sportsbook. But after the Supreme Court opened the door to widespread sports gambling by striking down the federal law that mostly prohibited it last year, seemingly meaningless buzzer-beaters in early February are now taking on outsize importance. When the points are counted in error, and when the same referee is on the floor for both, it becomes a Thing We Have to Talk About.
And for all of its bluster about the sanctity of the game and its long-held loathing of sports gambling, the NCAA apparently is willing to do just that. In July, it announced the creation of the working group, which comprises “subject matter experts” who “will explore how best to protect game integrity” in the wake of sports betting’s expansion. “Officiating” was listed as one of its topics of conversation, and thanks to two blown calls, that group might have a lot to discuss.
Step one might be an edict that the referees review all buzzer-beaters, no matter when they happen and no matter the outcome.