Published March 23, 2011
This was a familiar scene during the first week of the NCAA tournament: Officials huddled around the scorer's table, looking over replays to determine just how much time should be on the clock.
The NCAA — unlike the NBA, the Olympics, all major conferences and even some high schools — doesn't use an automatic timing system for its signature event.
It's an odd situation that caught plenty of prominent coaches off guard when told this week that game clocks in the men's and women's tournaments are not linked to a well-known device known as Precision Time Systems, which was invented nearly two decades ago by former NBA and college referee Michael Costabile.
"To be honest with you, I didn't even realize that they weren't using it during the tournament," said North Carolina's Roy Williams, whose Tar Heels were involved in the most prominent of several timing issues during the first week of March Madness.
Thad Matta, coach of overall top seed Ohio State, was even more confused.
"We use it in the Big Ten, so I'm good with it," he said Tuesday. "Matter of fact, when we talked about it in the Big Ten meetings, we said, 'Let's do what they do in the NCAA tournament.'"
Actually, the automatic system is widely used during the preseason, regular season and conference tournaments, but ignored by the NCAA for the biggest games of the year.
In a sense, it's like using a modern timing system to determine how fast Usain Bolt runs or Michael Phelps swims until they get to the Olympics, then breaking out the stopwatches to figure out who gets the gold medal.
"This is 2011," said Nelson Keller, who runs the clock merely as a backup for women's games at North Carolina and the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament. "It's crazy not to use the technology that's available."
That was never more apparent than last week when several games went down to the wire with the clock being kept by a timekeeper sitting courtside instead of being linked to Costabile's system, which shuts it down automatically when an official blows the whistle.
The most disputed game was North Carolina's 86-83 victory over Washington. The ball went out of bounds off a Tar Heels player with a half-second showing on the clock. Replays showed the ball went out of bounds with at least 1.1 seconds to go.
The officials looked at the video and did some frontier justice, determining the time on the board was right when factoring in the lag time between an official blowing his whistle and the timekeeper stopping the clock.
If Precision Time had been used, it wouldn't have been an issue.
"Any time you are talking about time on the clock, I think it's important that you get it right," Washington coach Lorenzo Romar said. "Whatever you have to do to make sure that you get it right, I think you need to do."
The sport's governing body doesn't have much to say about clock management.
Tournament spokesman David Worlock did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment. Neither did John Adams, the NCAA's coordinator for men's basketball officiating. Erik Christianson, the NCAA's director of public and media relations, issued a brief statement:
"The committee is satisfied with current game management processes and has chosen not to adopt it for the championship. From time to time it has been reviewed by the committee."
Costabile's system ranges in price from $3,185 to $3,750 each, which sounds like pocket change compared to the tournament's $10.8 billion television deal.
He proposed an even cheaper deal a few years ago, offering to provide free systems for the tournament if the NCAA would pay $1,500 at each site to have a company representative on hand to respond to any questions or problems that might arise. He said the money would have merely covered the cost of travel, hotel rooms and meals.
"I never heard back from them," he said.
Costabile's system uses wireless technology to sync the whistles to a computer base station that is tied in to the clock. Whenever an official blows his whistle, the clock stops. If more than one official blows his whistle, the clock stops on whichever signal it receives first.
To start the clock, each official wears a pager-looking device on their waistband that they use to flip a switch when play resumes. Whoever flips it first, that's what the computer goes with.
At the college level, a timekeeper is only needed to stop the clock in the closing minute after a basket is made and before the inbound pass.
Costabile said his system is used by more than 250 NCAA Division I schools, with every BCS conference adopting it league-wide. The NBA has used it since 1998, and the top professional leagues in Europe have since come on board.
The Olympics and other major international competitions also rely on it, removing the estimated six-to-eight-10ths of a second it takes for the timekeeper to react on each stoppage. Over the course of a typical game, that can add up to nearly a minute of lost time.
"The only league that doesn't use our stuff in a major tournament, pretty much throughout the world, is the NCAA men's and women's Division I tournament," Costabile said.
Amazingly, the system is used for the final rounds of the NCAA's Division II and III tournaments, Costabile said. Some states have adopted it for their high school championships.
"We just feel it takes the reaction time out of it," said Butch Powell, assistant executive director of the West Virginia Secondary School Activities Commission, which began using the system at its state tournament about eight years ago. "We've never had a coach question the clock in all the years we've used this."
Georgia found out how accurate the system is, much to its dismay, during the Southeastern Conference tournament.
Dustin Ware banked in a game-winning 3-pointer, but it didn't count because coach Mark Fox had called a timeout. The clock showed only 0.8 seconds remaining, so Fox went over to the scorer's table to lobby for more time. He didn't have a case. The Precision Time computer showed exactly when Gary Maxwell blew his whistle.
"The referee went to the monitor and obviously got it right," Fox said.
Alabama won the game in overtime.
Georgia had no complaints about the clock.
AP Sports Writer Aaron Beard in Chapel Hill, N.C., and freelance writer Curtis Crabtree in Seattle contributed to this report.