NCAA Tournament 2014: Are the Refs Tarnishing March Madness?

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NCAA Tournament 2014: Are the Refs Tarnishing March Madness?
Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sport

The best referees are the ones you don't notice, but the officials have screwed up and slowed down so many games in the 2014 NCAA tournament that we're getting to know some of them by name.

In Saturday night's epic Elite Eight showdown between Arizona and Wisconsin, referee Tony Greene whistled Arizona's Nick Johnson for a charge with 3.2 seconds remaining in a one-point game in overtime.

Did Johnson push off a bit with his left arm? Absolutely. But he wouldn't have needed to do so if Wisconsin's Josh Gasser hadn't initiated contact while sidestepping toward the hoop.

Asked about the call after the game, Arizona head coach Sean Miller told reporters, "I thought it was a really, really tough call. I'm going to stop there. I've already been fined."

Questionable whistles have been all the rage this weekend, and they're really starting to tarnish our beloved March Madness.

With six seconds remaining Friday night in Tennessee's attempt to put the finishing touches on an incredible come-from-behind victory in the Sweet 16, referees called Jarnell Stokes for a charge on a play where Michigan's Jordan Morgan pretty clearly flopped.

Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Michigan's Jordan Morgan.

(Morgan is no stranger to controversial calls in the tournament either. He was the one who drew the charge on Syracuse's Brandon Triche in the final 20 seconds of a two-point game in the 2013 Final Four.)

To be fair, it wasn't Stokes' fifth foul, and Caris LeVert stripped the ball right before the foul was called anyway. Still, it was a call that took Tennessee's chances of winning the game from maybe 30 percent to roughly 1 percent.

Having been called out for flopping the night before, Morgan had this to say after the charge called on Johnson Saturday:

In both situations, there shouldn't have been a whistle—a statement that is much easier to make outside of the heat of the moment and after seeing dozens of reviews.

There also shouldn't have been a whistle on three of the five fouls called against Louisville's Montrezl Harrell in the Cardinals' down-to-the-wire loss to Kentucky on Friday night.

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
Louisville's Montrezl Harrell.

Plenty have argued that the referees screwed over Arizona and Tennessee with those last-second charge calls. But neither Johnson nor Stokes actually made a basket that got waved off, and both Arizona and Tennessee at least got one final chance to win the game. And frankly, to the naked eye, those calls could have gone either way.

The fouls called against Harrell, however, quite literally affected the final 23 minutes of the game. From the point in the game in which Harrell got into foul trouble, 11 of Kentucky's final 14 made field goals were dunks, layups or tip-ins.

If the referees didn't have some apparent vendetta against Harrell, the defending national champions would likely still be defending that title.

Better yet, those same referees who saw fit to ruin Harrell's night took what could have been an exciting finish and brought it screeching to a halt with an officials' review that lasted at least four minutes.

How many times have we seen that sequence in the past two weeks (let alone the past four months)?

Two players from opposing teams lunge toward a ball before it caroms out of bounds. The three officials on the court look in bewilderment at one another before arbitrarily pointing in one direction. The coach and 90 percent of the players from the team headed in the other direction flip out and demand that the officials go to the monitor.

Mark Humphrey

After five minutes, 20 replays and way too many repetitive remarks from the color commentators, the officials somehow emerge from the replay monitor with a decision that doesn't seem to have any video evidence for support.

It's all getting out of hand.

The worst part of all is that they altered the rules this past summer in hopes of fixing these problems.

There was so much hair lost last March over block-versus-charge calls and missed calls on balls deflecting out of bounds that the NCAA changed the verbiage to deter drawing charges and hand-checking and instituted the official reviews that we've all come to know and hate.

On the surface, these changes were both necessary and good. The reviews improved the integrity of the game in the same manner as they have in football, tennis and baseball, and the block-versus-charge debate would have raged on eternally if the NCAA hadn't done something.

However, Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim would be first in a long line of coaches who could tell you the NCAA clearly didn't fix the issue. If anything, it slapped a bandage on an open wound and prescribed medication that takes a while to address the symptoms.

We no longer see the issue of players sacrificing their bodies by deftly sliding in front of a driver already well into his upward motion, but there's still no clear line in the sand when it comes to delineating between a block and a charge.

Long before the controversial call on Johnson in the Elite Eight, Dayton's Vee Sanford and Ohio State's Aaron Craft had a virtually identical meeting of the minds on a last-second drive to the hoop in the second round, but no foul was called. (Insert generic complaint that fouls are never called on Craft.)

Bill Wippert
Dayton's Vee Sanford.

If the ref calls a charge on Sanford, Dayton's magical run never happens. If the ref doesn't call the charge on Johnson, perhaps Arizona's run would have lived to see another weekend.

With the nanosecond in which the referees need to make that call, they're going to get it wrong on an uncomfortably regular basis. It's just unfortunate for them (and the game of college hoops in general) that they're getting it wrong in the final five seconds of one-possession games with the entire world watching.

And please, for the love of all that is holy, can we do away with the extended delay from the official reviews?

I'm all for using instant replay in sports, but emphasis on the instant.

There's no reason for three guys to huddle around a monitor and watch a replay 15 times before coming to an unconvincing conclusion. It's already hard enough to incessantly flip back and forth between simultaneously occurring games. Throw in one or two of those games involving a late review, and it's a miracle our remote controls survive this month.

Are the refs tarnishing March Madness?

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So why can't the alternate referee become the official replay honcho? And why can't we come to an agreement that he has 20 seconds to review a play before we simply let the possession arrow decide who gets the ball? Same goes for reviews for flying elbows. If a flagrant foul isn't immediately apparent after watching one replay, just let it go.

The final few minutes of basketball games are already long enough between fouls and timeouts without momentum-crippling delays from reviews.

I've still enjoyed the heck out of this tournament, but it's a shame to think how much better things could be with more consistent and efficient officiating.

 

Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.

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