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The referee show, While We’re Waiting

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Happy Tuesday, WFNY!

What a sports day it is today, my friends! We had the NCAA Basketball National Championship Game last night, we had the Cleveland Indians season opener, the Cleveland Cavaliers play today, and the Masters is this weekend. As a sports fan, this is what it’s all about.

Let’s start with the National Championship Game last night, though1. All things considered, the end of the game was pretty decent. I guess you know we’re spoiled when you have several ties and lead changes in the final three minutes of a title game and you classify it as just “decent”, but compared to some of the recent championship finishes we’ve had in seemingly every sport, this one comes out feeling a little more average.

Of course, a big part of that might also be the elephant on the court, the officials. Make no mistake, this was not a fun game to watch. It was awful. You know it’s bad when you even lose our old friend, TD, who is the biggest college basketball fan that I know:

It was not a well-played game on the part of either team, particularly, but the officiating made it that much worse. There were multiple stretches in this game where it felt like a miracle if we could get a possession without a foul being called. It bogged the game down, destroyed any chance of building rhythm or momentum, and it just made the game almost unwatchable.

It’s a problem that has long plagued college basketball, in my opinion. Inconsistencies in officiating across conferences are one major problem, as is only being allowed five fouls instead of six like in the NBA, but then we routinely have these major tournament games that turn into the referee show. It’s not enjoyable as fans and it sure looks frustrating to coaches and players as well.

From a certain perspective, you might ask what the refs are supposed to do. If it’s a foul, you have to call it, right? Well, it’s not that black and white. Fouls are judgment calls. I know some will argue they are not, that a foul is defined in the rules book. But have you actually looked at the NCAA basketball rules book? The definition of a personal foul fills an entire page and is filled with 15 articles to describe what is and is not a foul. The refs have to decide how much contact is allowed before a foul is called.

Rick Pitino was on Mike and Mike this morning, and he had an interesting anecdote about this. He said when he was coaching in the NBA, then-commissioner David Stern had a meeting with coaches and GMs to discuss scoring in the league. Only one team was averaging more than 100 points per game at that time, and Stern was adamant that scoring must increase. They all discussed a multitude of solutions, when finally Chuck Daly simply said, “If you want scoring to go up, call more fouls.”

The idea was that if you called the game tighter, the players would adapt and ease up on the physicality with which they defend, and scoring will increase. So that’s what the NBA did, and scoring has pretty much been on the rise ever since.

Pitino insinuated that the NCAA is trying to do the same thing, that refs are encouraged to call more fouls to get scoring to go up. The problem is, the players aren’t adapting to it. They are instead just continuing to play the same way and daring the refs to call a foul. And the refs are obliging.

I don’t know if the refs are really encouraged to call more fouls or not, I just know that in a game like last night, it was beyond frustrating as a fan to watch them call so many fouls all game that didn’t seem like they needed to be called, only to then completely miss what was an obvious out-of-bounds against North Carolina on a critical held-ball situation late in the game2.

While touching the basketball, North Carolina’s Kennedy Meeks put his hand down on the baseline. At that point, he is out-of-bounds and the ball should have been given to Gonzaga. Instead, it was eventually called a held-ball and North Carolina had the possession arrow. I guess North Carolina is just lucky that this isn’t golf, where fans could have called or emailed in the rules violation and the outcome would be overturned.

For his part, though, Gonzaga coach Mark Few was nothing but classy about the officiating situation in this game, saying afterward:

“I had no issue whatsoever. I thought [the referees] did a fabulous job. You know, and I’m on the losing end. It’s just not an easy game to ref. And we’re throwing the ball inside, they’re throwing the ball inside, our guards go inside, their guards go inside. So you know, I thought they were great.”

To be clear, the refs didn’t cost anyone this game. That’s not the issue here. The issue is the refs made this a terrible game to watch by over-calling the game, but then they didn’t make a call at a critical point of the game when there was clearly a proper call to be made. It’s the inconsistency of this that can drive fans nuts.

So no, this wasn’t the prettiest game ever played, it wasn’t the most fun to watch. But at least we got yet another competitive championship game where the outcome was not decided until the final minute. We got to see the passion of the players on full display. The elements of college basketball that are great were there as well. It’s just shame that once again college basketball has found the refs to be one of the major talking points the day after a big game. I just hope something can be done about this at some point.

  1. I know, you guys want to talk about the Indians. And why not? What an amazing opening game! But I’ll leave the Indians talk to Bode, whose recap will be up shortly []
  2. To be clear, I was rooting for North Carolina and I’m glad they won, but the out-of-bounds was an obvious call that the refs blatantly missed right in front of them. []

  • RGB

    The refs ruined that game last night.
    I think they’ve become so accustomed to officiating 3-point shooting contests that pass as modern basketball today, that they didn’t know what to do with two teams that had actual low-post games.

  • mgbode

    The NBA instituted the hand-check rule and made it quite clear to everyone involved that they were going to open up the game. College basketball, to my knowledge, has not been transparent if they are attempting to call more fouls to open the game up.

    “More fouls” doesn’t guarantee that the game is more enjoyable to watch. It depends on the types of fouls too.

  • Natedawg86

    I just didn’t understand that no call that you described above. The ref was right there looking at him from 4 feet away too. I saw it live, but honestly since it was so late, and they didn’t make the call, I didn’t rewind it when watching to confirm he was out of bounds. A lot of ticky tack calls on the bigs last night which made a huge impact on the game.

  • NankirPhelge

    Gonzaga should have rested their starters in the semifinal.

    Seriously, use the whistles sparingly and let ’em play. These two teams don’t appear to be the kind that would let things get out of hand unsportsmanlikewise.

  • woofersus

    “It depends on the types of fouls too.”

    This is what I was prepared to chime in on as well. The NBA has been pretty meticulous in shaping the specific ways in which they want a game called. In NCAA basketball, it feels (and I admittedly don’t watch much before March other than the big matchups) as though there are a lot of fouls called on players off the ball and in transition moments like rebounds, inbounds plays, etc. These calls are frequently an unwelcome interruption and they don’t do anything to increase scoring. They should focus on the type of contact that stops or slows down the ball – particularly hand checking and reach-ins. Empower point guards in the way the NBA has done, and don’t interrupt the flow of the game on incidental contact.

    There’s another issue that is harder to solve, though. The thing that opens up the driving and passing lanes is shooting. In the NBA, long distance shooting value and talent are both at an all time high. Yes, young kids are practicing 3pt shots more than ever, but the reality is that the talent pool is much less concentrated in college basketball. Shooting percentages are much lower on most teams, and it’s still possible to rise to the top without that strength. I would have expected it to naturally increase as high school players focus more and more on it as they look to NBA dreams, but I haven’t noticed it that much yet – or the relentless efficiency drive that comes with that ability.

  • Gerald Schiele III

    It’s easy to sit in the comfort of the stands or a living room and call a game of any kind. I wonder how many viewers actually saw the out of bounds violation in real time. People hold officials to a standard that even they would find difficult to live up to. Ijs

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