Let me get this out of the way right off the bat: I rarely, if ever, blame refs for a loss. I'm a firm believer that everything seems to even out in the end, and that, if a team plays really good basketball, it will provide multiple ways to victory that has nothing to do with an errant whistle.
I also believe that being a ref or umpire in any sport is pretty damn difficult and, ultimately, thankless. They are like the CIA, if the CIA dealt with really unimportant things. If they are doing their jobs right, you don't even notice they exist. It's only when a mistake is made that we pay attention to the guardians of the game.
Having said that, let me also say this: I think the refs in college basketball have been brutal this year. Absolutely, positively brutal.
I wanted to write about this after watching UConn vs. UCF live at Gampel a few weeks back. The Huskies won a laugher, but anyone who watched that game knows the refs were in a "foul" mood (see what I did there? pretty funny, huh? okay, maybe not).
In total, there were 51 foul shots taken in that game. UConn, the more athletic and physically-dominant team, took 26 while UCF took 25. If one was so inclined, they could look at those numbers and say "hey, at least it was evenly dispersed," and the point would be legitimate. There's always something somewhat uncomfortable when one team ends up going to the line double the amount of times as their opponent.
But, if you watched that UConn/UCF game, you know the dispursement of fouls was less about fair play and more about just shoddy calls.
It seemed that almost every other time down the court, someone was being called for something. Any kind of contact, any 50/50 call was resetting the shot clock or sending someone to the line.
It killed the flow of the game. It helped stymie the excitement of a crowd that, though not as boisterous as is usually common at Gampel, was still ready to explode. It just made the game drag.
I'm sure a lot of this continues to stem from the new hand checking rules instituted before the season. In case you'd forgotten, hand checking is now pretty much illegal, so anytime a defender lays a hand on his opponent while he has the ball, it's suppose to be a foul. By the letter of the law, I'm sure the refs are doing "the right thing" here.
Yet, ultimately, the whole point of making hand checking illegal is to open up the college game, add offense, and make for high-scoring affairs. It kind of defeats the purpose if, every three seconds, someone is being called for a cheap foul.
A columnist for The Coloradoan, Matt Stephens, wrote about the affect the new rules, or the enforcement of the old rules depending on how you look at it, were having on the game back in November. Stephens found that fouls per game had increased from 35.38 to 41.24. Free throw attempts were up from 39.2 per game in 2012/2013 to 48.3 this season.
You don't need to be a math whiz to know that equals longer games with more "action" happening at the free throw line.
I get the idea that players and coaches have to essentially be weened off hand checking, and the only way to do that is to call fouls. However, we are in January. It's hard for me to believe the hand checking going on right now is really disrupting the game and the offense nearly as much as all these stupid foul calls. There's hand checking that essentially keeps a player from driving the lane by physically keeping him out of there, and then there's "hand checking" by the letter of the law, only. One would think refs would be smart enough to let some of the latter go, especially when it's the tip of a fingernail landing on the shirt of the ball handler and not some ice hockey forearm to the chest.
But the hand checking stuff is only one part of this problem.
Let's ignore, for a moment, the ridiculous scene that evolved at Gampel against Louisville a few games back. Kevin Ollie had every right to go ballistic when his player was all but knocked to the floor, right in front of every single ref at the game, and no foul was called. Want to say he deserved the first technical? Fine. Maybe he did. But there's no way he deserved to get tossed only a few seconds after that. If he's stomping on the sidelines a few minutes later, okay ... maybe that makes sense. To throw him out with a second T after just giving him the first? Moronic.
But Ollie's ejection was brewing for a while, because that was one of the worst officiated games I've seen in a long time. The biggest problem? Consistency.
If you've ever played baseball at really any level, you know one universal truth: every umpire has a different strike zone. The baseball rule book doesn't set it up that way ... balls and strikes are suppose to be the same no matter what. The reality is that doesn't happen.
So, as a batter, you're not looking for every ump to call every pitch exactly the same. You're looking for consistency. If the belt-high fastball is called a strike in the first inning, it better be called a strike in the ninth. If the inside strike isn't being called all game, it better not be called in the seventh inning during a rally.
It's the same with basketball.
Refs call games differently. We know this. Some allow for a lot of contact. Some call every little thing. All that matters is that the tone is set right off the bat.
In the case of the Louisville game, there was no consistency. There would be stretches where guys were being tackled like it was Giants vs. Bears on a Sunday afternoon, and then there would be a three-minute span where every dirty look was being called a two-shot foul. So, as a player, how to do adapt? You can't. There's no chance.
What does that lead to? Well, against Louisville, it led to both teams being in the bonus with over 10 minutes to play. Louisville was in the double bonus with, I believe, nine minutes to play. It makes for an excruciating game.
This isn't about UConn getting jobbed by the refs, although I will admit I think the whistle helped the Cardinals a lot more than it helped the Huskies in their game on the 18th. This is about college basketball recognizing the problem it has and doing something to prevent these games from turning into foul shooting contests.
If this all stems from confusion about hand checking, then someone needs to clarify what the objectives are. If this is about bad refs, then new, better ones need to be found.
The greatest advantage basketball has over its American-sports competitors is that, besides hockey, no other provides constant movement and action. Football can turn into 30 seconds of huddling with three seconds of running up the middle for two yards. Baseball can quickly turn tedious with never-ending pitching changes and walks to first base. Basketball, however, is constant movement. It should be constant excitement.
So far this year, that excitement has been held hostage by the whistle. Please, NCAA ... change that.