April 18th, 2017
Reed: aligning NCAA officials on the court
The chatter coming out of the 2017 NCAA Final Four in Phoenix wasn’t about North Carolina’s gritty run to the title, or Oregon’s first appearance since winning the first national championship in 1939, or even about the various coaching changes happening in some major programs.
It was about the officiating. The title game between Carolina and Gonzaga turned into a free-throw shooting contest that had no flow or rhythm. It was so difficult to watch, especially at such a late starting time in the East that you could almost hear TV sets being turned off or switched to other channels.
Sadly, it was a fitting end to a tournament where the officiating too often dominated the game. The viewing public, aided by instant replays, was more critical than usual, and the University of Kentucky fan base even elevated its displeasure with referee John Higgins to literally a criminal level.
Big Blue Nation, as the base likes to call itself, was so irate by Higgins’ work in the Wildcats’ Elite Eight to Carolina that they bombarded the websites and phones at both Higgins’ home and business with vulgar, obscene messages that included death threats.
Higgins turned it all over to law enforcement, which promised to seek the identities of some of the vilest offenders so criminal charges – terroristic threatening and that sort of thing – could be brought. It was the worst example of referee abuse in the sport’s history.
While the actions of these Big Blue miscreants was inexcusable. Complaints about officiating also were percolating in more reasonable and civil fan bases. It’s safe to say that almost nobody was happy with the lack of uniformity among officials and the annoying stops in the action so the officials could study TV monitors.
The latter, by the way, has a direct impact on the integrity of the game. Louisville coach Rick Pitino said it was pointless to use a fullcourt press in the tournament because all the pauses in action for TV timeouts and replay studies made it impossible to wear out an opponent.
If the NCAA tries to blow off what happened in this tournament as nothing more than the usually griping about officials, or as an inevitable manifestation of the lack of civility that permeates modern society, it would be making a big mistake. A crisis point has been reached and it must be addressed.
I propose a summit conference of NCAA administrators, referees, and coaches to determine the answer to a simple question: What do we want our game to be? How much contact should be allowed? How much use of replay is advisable? What rules need to be changed, added, eliminated, or better enforced?
The summit also should set a maximum on the number of regular-season games an official can work, promote more uniformity among conferences, and encouraging coaches to work with their fan bases to make sure an official can never again be subjected to kind of hatred and ugliness that Kentucky fans heaped on Higgins.
All that’s at stake is the health, integrity, and popularity of the game moving forward.
When I write on these pages about the inherent fun and excitement of college basketball and its traditions, I know I’m preaching to the choir. All of us love the college game and all of us want to see it flourish. But we must never forget that not everyone in the sports world feels as we do.
The morning after the title game, for example, Pitino was doing an interview with a couple of ESPN guys who seem to talk about college basketball only when they can’t avoid it. Suddenly they hustled him off the air so they could get to major breaking news from the NFL: Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo was retiring. They spent the rest of the morning talking about that, never returning to a college title game that was barely 12 hours old.
I was surprised and dismayed. But, then, I’m a college hoops guy. The point is that everybody should be talking enthusiastically about the new champion the morning after instead of griping about how poor the officiating was.
One popular answer is to “let them play,” but what exactly does that mean? So much contact already is allowed in the paint that some games are beginning to look more like wrestling matches. And almost every time a guard slices to the basket, whether there is a defender in his path or not, the rest is contact and an ugly “shot” that sometimes defies the laws of probability and drops in.
The problems go back to how the game is taught. Bad habits are encouraged, not corrected. Grace, agility, and finesse have been replaced by “athleticism.” Players have the physiques of football linebackers, not to mention hands and heads of stone. It is not the game taught by Wooden, Smith, Knight, and Rupp.
I’ve said many times that the modern game has become impossible to officiate. But that’s a cop-out. It must be officiated uniformly and evenly with a minimum of disruption. The charge-block should be called the same everywhere. Players should not be allowed to tuck the ball under an arm and take three steps to the hoop. A ticky-tacky slap in backcourt should be ignored. And so forth.
My memory of Carolina-Gonzaga will be that there was a great game in there somewhere, fighting to get out. But it never happened because the officials suffocated it. That’s not what we want the game to be. It’s time for the powers-that-be to get busy and give us back our game.