The officials are going to ruin March Madness this year. You can feel it. You can see it coming.
Before the 2013-14 college basketball season even started, the officials were already the story of the year. Due to a wave of new "freedom of movement" rules, officials were on the spot for how they would call the game.
the ticky-tack fouls had given way to defenders moving their feet and, frankly, better basketball.
Then, conference play arrived, and everything went to hell.
Basketball is probably the hardest sport to officiate and the one where the officials play the biggest role. This is not absolving refs in other sports, but when there is a total screw up in the NFL or NHL, it feels more like the exception than the rule. In every other sport, you trust that there will be a certain level of competence on display – unless you're watching Pac-12 football.
The NBA has its own referee problems but there is a sad understanding of what will take place. LeBron will get a call that Kemba Walker wouldn't get, and Kemba will get a call that Steve Blake wouldn't. The star system is not the best way to officiate a professional sporting contest, but at least there is consistency.
At the college level? A competently officiated game is the exception. It's frightening that it has somehow gotten worse. While thinking about this topic – and without any research – I came up with the following examples in a heartbeat.
1) When Louisville played UConn on ESPN's College Gameday matchup on a Saturday night, UConn's Niles Giffey was clearly fouled on a three-point attempt. The ref missed the call and gave the ball to Louisville. Rightly upset, Kevin Ollie ran down the sideline to complain. Within seconds, Ollie had been given two technical fouls and ejected. It essentially ended the game. Instead of three UConn foul shots, Louisville had four – a seven-shot swing due to referee error.
2) When Cincinnati played UConn during a classic AAC game on a Thursday night, the refs called the first 30 minutes of game action like it was the 1993 edition of the Big East. They called absolutely nothing. Then, for the last 10 minutes, they called the game like it was November 2013, calling all of the touch fouls that were necessitated by the freedom of movement rules. The game ground to a halt, became a free throw contest and Cincinnati won. Now, Cincy may have won anyway but the game was completely and totally ruined.
The highlight came when a referee called continuation to give Cincy an And-1 – momentarily forgetting that continuation does not exist in the college game. While that was rectified, the fact it was called at all remains sobering.
3) When Boston College upset Syracuse, the Orange's Tyler Ennis threw the ball out of bounds. The ref underneath the basket – who was not even looking at the play!! – gave the ball to Syracuse. After a lengthy review, in which we saw over and over again that Ennis threw the ball out of bounds, Syracuse still got the ball. Thankfully, ball don't lie and Syracuse lost.
4) This past Saturday, Cincinnati and Louisville sat through a 10-minute review for an out of bounds call. On the floor, the refs gave the ball to Louisville. After looking at the monitors for approximately four minutes, they gave the ball to Cincinnati. Then after looking at the monitors AGAIN for another four minutes, they gave the ball back to Louisville. Seriously – how does instant replay make it harder for officials?
5) Literally any time there might be an elbow thrown. The refs gather around the monitor and try to determine intent when someone gets hit by an elbow. 99.9 percent of the time, this occurs during the play of game and 90 percent of the time, the refs didn't even call a foul in the first place.
In an Alabama/Florida game I caught a few minutes of while on the treadmill, an Alabama player, with the ball, struck a Florida player in the face with an elbow trying to avoid a trap. At least 15 seconds later, after nothing had been called, the refs went to the monitor and called a flagrant foul on the Alabama player. It was an exercise in the absurd. Or as they call it in college basketball – a Saturday afternoon.
6) The end of Arizona State's win over Arizona. The Pac-12 – surprise, surprise – had to admit failure for that fiasco, first by not calling a technical on an ASU player showboating on the winning dunk or doing anything when 2,000 students rushed the court with time left on the clock. It was a complete and total disaster in every sense of the word.
7) Just last night, TV Ted Valentine threw a fan out of a game who was loudly disagreeing with the terrible calls Ted was making.
I could go on and on but, frankly, recounting this is making me angry.
College basketball is in real trouble and no one is really paying attention to it, in part because this regular season, despite being as meaningless as others, has felt different. There is more talent than there has been in years. There are multiple great teams. There are a lot of good teams. You argue for 15-20 teams to having a chance to win it all. The second round – ugh, third round – on the first weekend of the tournament could be one for the ages.
That, though, is why the recent officiating nightmares have me concerned. I don't want to see my alma mater, GW, knocked out due to incompetence or my home state team, UConn, not making a deep run because of a bad call.
Yet, that is the fear every time the ball is put in play.
What is college basketball doing to address this? Nothing, of course.
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