Let’s face it: Nobody likes referees.
But during the weekend of the Elite Eight, a particularly rocky season for the zebras on the NCAA hardwood came to a catastrophic culmination as two late-game calls essentially ended the runs of Final Four hopefuls UA and Tennessee.
After making an improbable comeback (eight points in less than two minutes) against No. 2-seed Michigan on Friday, March 28, the improbable No. 11-seed Volunteers were down just one point with 10 seconds left in the game. Tennessee inbounded under its own basket, but the quick screech of a whistle splintered the excitement and an even quicker charging call effectively ended the game for the Volunteers.
Meanwhile, on Saturday, March 29, UA lost to Wisconsin 64-63 after referees called an offensive foul on UA junior guard Nick Johnson with just four seconds left in the game.
In both cases, Twitter immediately erupted with jeers and demands.
“Let ‘em play,” “Let the players decide the game,” “You can’t call that on the last possession,” “Terrible calls kill great games,” and my personal favorite, “Swallow the whistles,” were among the 140-character criticisms.
First of all, a great game is a great game, even if it ends on a perceived “bad” call. Even if you thought both of those games had terrible endings, at least you were treated to 40 minutes (45 in the case of UA vs. Wisconsin) of incredible basketball. Period.
Chris Chase from USA TODAY wrote, “When it’s up in the air like that, there’s only one call to make: Not making one at all.” He went on to write, “Let the athletes settle it, not the refs. When there’s 10 seconds left in a game and one possession separates the teams, keep the whistle around the neck unless it’s something egregious.”
Now I know it’s March, but claims like Chase’s are pure madness. Should the refs call it a night on the biggest possession of the game? Would that be “letting the players settle it?” The players do settle it when they break the rules, and let me tell you, a foul is a foul is a foul.
In Indianapolis, Memphis, Tenn., Tucson or Tempe, and even on Mars, a foul is a foul is foul.
There is nothing in the NCAA rulebook that states late in a game fouls have to be “egregious” or that the refs should “let them play” and hold their whistles while infractions are being committed.
To quote the great Walter Sobchak, “Smokey, this is not ‘Nam, this is bowling. There are rules.”
In every game throughout every season in every sport, there is nothing worse than an officiating crew that lacks consistency.
So why then are we so desperate for officials to abandon any semblance of adherence to the rules in the most pivotal moments of the most important games? Has the whole world gone crazy? Am I the only one around here who cares about the rules?
I’ll admit that I love watching UA lose, but even so, Nick Johnson clearly pushed off with his left arm, which is a foul at any juncture of the game, no matter how crucial.
And in case you didn’t notice Johnson’s shot didn’t actually go in. In fact, the referees gave UA a makeup call on the next play and Johnson got another look at a shot. He flubbed it up again by not getting it off on time (and missing, again).
So, Johnson missed two game winners and committed a blatant foul on one and the referees are to blame for a riot in Tucson? I don’t think so.
Sean Miller put it best after the game when he said, “I thought it was a really, really tough call.”
He’s right. It was a tough call, but it certainly wasn’t the wrong call.
Reach the columnist at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @NPMendoza