Monday night’s NCAA championship game was wonderful in the way that college basketball games rarely are any more. The pace was quick, a pair of unlikely heroes emerged in the first half, and the nation’s most efficient defensive team beat the most efficient offensive team by simply being better on offense. Other than Wolverines coach John Beilein’s odd gaffe of not knowing his team’s foul situation toward the end of the game, Michigan and Louisville staged a classic that was compelling from start to finish, featuring everything you could reasonably ask for on the sport’s biggest stage.
Everything except for competent officiating.
Every NCAA tournament has its defining moments, which is why CBS treats us to a montage of memories you may have heard of long after Jim Nantz is done presenting the championship hardware with a wider grin than Michigan’s Spike Albrecht’s when he found out Kate Upton was within 20 feet of him.
Forget that Spike was back to reality Wednesday morning.
Wow, major digression. Aside from Spike trying to seriously outkick his coverage, what I’ll remember more than anything from the 2013 tournament is Trey Burke’s clean chasedown block of Louisville’s Peyton Siva on what appeared to be an uncontested layup. Instead, it was called a foul on Burke.
Forget that Burke, the AP national player of the year and a likely top-10 pick in the NBA draft, was quick enough to get back and athletic enough to get up to pin the ball against the glass. Forget that, trailing by three with five minutes remaining, Tim Hardaway Jr.’s recovery of the shot would have given Michigan a chance to tie the score in transition. Forget that Siva made the free throws and the Wolverines would never get closer than four the rest of the way.
I’m not here to rail on the refs for what clearly looked to be a clean block, but that play was a microcosm of what officiating in college basketball has turned into – a jogging, breathing contradiction that’s unable to do much of anything consistently right from game to game, from conference to conference.
There’s nothing easy about officiating a game between 18- to 22-year-olds with world class athleticism, but – wouldn’t you know it? – the NCAA doesn’t set these officials up for success. As ESPN’s outstanding college hoops analyst Jay Bilas notes, there’s no single person or body truly in charge of officiating, meaning the sport’s refs are essentially independent contractors beholden to no one and everyone (conferences, players, coaches, the NCAA’s director of officiating) at the same time.
As this outstanding Deadspin piece by Columbia journalism student Mike Bebernes tells us, “what is a foul on Monday might not be a foul on Thursday,” according to one veteran ref. That’s a problem. If the goal in baseball is to eventually find a uniform strike zone so that we don’t see stuff like Monday’s absurd game-ending, called third strike in Texas happen – and trust me, it’s coming – then the goal for NCAA basketball should be the same. The ability of the players on the court is supposed to be the variable that defines success, not a definition of a foul that’s different from conference to conference depending on the three zebras the NCAA randomly assigns to officiate that game. In a sport where five individual fouls equals disqualification and seven team fouls send an opponent to the line for the remainder of a half, it’s even more critical.
Take the block/charge call for example. Other than perhaps offensive holding in college football and the NFL, which could legitimately be called on every play, there might not be a tougher call to get right in all of sports. Two years ago, the NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Panel implemented the restricted-area arc – already used in the NBA – underneath the basket in an attempt to help officials make more consistent calls. Draw contact inside that area and it’s a block, but if a defender has his feet set outside the circle upon contact, it’s a charge. Ten months ago, that same panel tried to take it a step further by shoring up the definition. I’m anxiously awaiting the refs’ response when the giant tortoise sent to deliver these messages finally arrives.
This is not to say officiating in the NBA is some sort of shining example of righteousness by any stretch, because you could talk to anyone who watches pro basketball regularly and wind up listening to them rant for three hours about the many problems with officials at that level. But at least I usually know what I’m getting with NBA refs. Superstars are going to get the benefit of the doubt, rookies are going to get whistled for ticky-tack fouls and the home team is probably going to get an extra call or two in its favor over the course of a game.
College games aren’t nearly as predictable, and in many ways, that hurts the product. If you’re not convinced, check out what Bilas had to say four days after Kentucky defeated Kansas in the 2012 national championship game, from the article linked previously.
“There are far too many charges awarded to help defenders, and most of the charge/block calls you see are simply wrongly decided by officials. It is out of control, and I have not heard any coaches disagree with that assertion. The charge call has become a major problem in college basketball, and it needs to be addressed with all deliberate speed.
“Through statistics, metrics and my lying eyes, it has become clear to me that college basketball is at its lowest point in the past 30 years. And I believe the manner in which the game is officiated is the primary culprit for the decline in the game’s quality.”
What can be done? At least as far as the block/charge dilemma, how about looking internationally? FIBA attempts to combat floppers in the painted area by issuing a warning upon the first flop and then slapping the offender with a technical foul the second time. That would certainly cause guys like Wisconsin charge-magnet and potential future white rapper Mike Bruesewitz to think twice before flopping, and Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol love the idea – so why not?
Three well-played, entertaining games in a tournament largely devoid of high-quality performances took place at the Final Four in Atlanta. Though there were missed calls throughout that we tend to forget about, each was defined in the end by what appeared to be a critical mistake. In Wichita State-Louisville, it was the lightning quick held ball with six seconds left that deprived the Shockers of their last chance to hit a game-tying 3. In Syracuse-Michigan, it was the Orange’s Brandon Triche being called for a highly questionable charge with 19 seconds left that fouled him out rather than giving him a chance to hit the tying free throws.
I already mentioned Burke’s highlight-reel block that was called the other way. For a play that, had it turned the tide, had a chance to be this tournament’s One Shining Moment, we’re instead left doing the one thing the men in stripes are supposed to want fans to avoid.
Talking about them.