Over the first weekend of the NCAA tournament we saw exciting buzzer beaters, up and coming superstars, unbelievable upsets, and a few questionable calls. Referees are responsible for making difficult decisions every time they step out on the court. It’s very easy to sit back and criticize from behind a TV set with no pressure or scrutiny. At the same time however, it is very sad to see a game decided by a foul or a referee’s mistake.
These kids work hard the entire year for the chance to play in the NCAA tournament, and when a team is eliminated because of a questionable call it can be heart breaking. We saw three instances in the 2nd round in which referees had a significant effect on the outcome of a game; UNC 86 UW 83, Butler 71 Pittsburgh 70, and Arizona 70 Texas 69.
#7 Washington vs. #2 North Carolina
The UW was involved in one of those games on Sunday, in a 3 point loss to North Carolina. On the second to last play of the game Venoy Overton threw up a half court prayer that didn’t even come close to the basket. Fortunately for the Huskies, John Henson of the Tar Heels touched the ball before it went out of bounds.
The Huskies were then given 0.5 seconds to execute a play. On that play Isaiah Thomas would attempt a buzzer beating shot and miss. Upon further review, using instant replay, the ball was clearly out of bounds with more than a second left.
Now this may seem insignificant but the difference is immense. That extra 0.7 seconds would have given Isaiah enough time to comfortably get a shot off instead of the rushed, off balanced, 2 point jumper that ended the game. While this is not a case of the referees literally costing UW the game, it was a play that, according to the rules, could have been reviewed and should have as the replay shows.
Instances such as this are the reason instant replay has been implemented into college basketball. It was meant to protect referees from post-game scrutiny over clock concerns. Referees cannot be expected to exercise perfect judgment, especially when they have split seconds to make a decision. Refs should take advantage of the opportunity to use replay, when admissible, and make sure to put the right amount of time on the clock in late game situations.
There was a great deal that contributed to the Huskies loss on Sunday, the final play was only one supporting factor. Overton’s judgment on the last two plays of the game seemed to be more worthy of scrutiny, but this is not something that can be reviewed or changed by impartial referees.
There should have been more time on the clock and the refs should have gone to the replay to make that determination. This was not a split second decision, it was a play that could have been reviewed and the clock should have been changed.
#8 Butler vs. #1 Pittsburgh
Unlike the previous clock situation, this was a game that was literally decided by a pair of foul calls. With Butler ahead at the end of the game 70-69, Shelvin Mack was called for a foul giving Pittsburgh the chance to go to the free throw line with 1.4 seconds left. Gilbert Brown of Pittsburgh would split the free throws to tie the game.
Upon missing the second shot Matt Howard grabbed the rebound and Nasir Robinson was called for a foul sending Butler to the line, giving them a chance to win the game with 0.8 seconds left on the clock. Howard would go on to make the first free throw and ultimately advance Butler to the Sweet Sixteen.
While the timing of these calls seemed questionable, both did appear to be fouls. It raises the question once again, should refs swallow their whistle at the end of a game. In my opinion the answer is no. There are fouls at the beginning and the end of the game, both of which need to called. However, I don’t think referees should decide the outcome by calling the game too tight near the end.
The first foul appeared to be legitimate as Brown was clearly pushed out of bounds, it seemed to be a good call as Mack made a bad defensive decision. While the second call was probably a foul as well, I think this was a situation in which circumstances should have come into play and the foul should not have been called. There was no chance for Butler to get the ball up the court and their only shot would have been a Hail Mary.
The call was probably ill-advised, and seemingly the game would have been better if decided in overtime. I have no problem with the end of the game however, and believe it was an enthralling conclusion. I do think, in general, referees should ease up on the whistle at the end of the game and make sure not to dictate the conclusion on questionable foul calls.
#4 Texas vs. #5 Arizona
This was another game that came down to the referees, specifically an interesting 5 second call that gave Arizona new life. There were 14.5 seconds left on the clock and Texas had the ball up by 2. While attempting to inbound the ball they were called for a 5 second violation under controversial circumstances.
It appeared, after further review, that Texas had called a timeout prior to the violation and the referee had only counted to four with his arm motions. Texas would go on to lose the game and would be eliminated from the tournament after giving up a 3 point play and missing a game winning opportunity.
Players, coaches, and fans alike were stunned after this improbable ending. It was a call that should not have been made and more discretion, on the part of the referee, should have been shown.
This is a situation where everyone involved knew the circumstances. The referee knew that if Texas could not inbound the ball, they would be looking to call a timeout. There is no disputing that the play in question was very close to a five second violation, but Texas deserves some leeway because of the context of the play within the game.
It was a case of a referee not understanding the magnitude of the circumstance, or the repercussions of such a call at that point in the game. He should have been looking to the player inbounding the ball or the coach to grant a timeout as it got closer to 5 seconds. Instead it appeared he was itching to make a violation call that completely altered the end of the game.
Texas should have been granted a timeout and 9 times out of 10 they would have been. Unfortunately a referee ended up nullifying what had been accomplished by the Longhorns throughout the game and completely altered the outcome with one blow of the whistle.
To Make a Call or Not?
I don’t mean to criticize the referees who are poorly compensated, overworked, and heavily scrutinized. But for something as big as the NCAA tournament, referees need to be trained and advised in proper late game protocol. This is a topic that should to be addressed prior to the tournament and clear guidelines need to be laid out for referees to follow.
With the amount of cameras present in any sporting venue, the prevalence of media throughout sports, and the current hyper-internet age scrutiny on referees is extremely high. While I hate to further contribute, it’s important to note these college kids play their hearts out for 40 minutes and give it all they’ve got out on the court. They deserve to be rewarded with good decisions from referees at the end of the game. It’s fine to screw things up early or make a bad call here and there, but at the end of the game these referees need to know what to do and what not to do. This should be a top priority next year and all referees need to be properly trained in late game situations.
*While technically the 3rd round, according to many, I refuse to count the play in games as the 1st round so I will continue to dismiss the play-in games as an actual round
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