GLENDALE, Ariz. —During the 40 minutes of basketball comprising the 2017 NCAA Championship game Monday night between Gonzaga and North Carolina, the officiating crew assigned to enforce the rules of the game blew their whistles to call 44 fouls, 27 of them in the second half. If it seemed like too many, that’s because it was.
By a few.
Although the crew of Mike Eades, Verne Harris and Michael Stephens were too easily tricked on some calls (UNC guard Joel Berry getting three free throws because he was blown down by Josh Perkins’ jetstream) or did not enforce the rules as directed (Zags center Zach Collins’ second foul came on what appeared to be a straight verticality play), the biggest reason they called so many fouls is because there were so many fouls. That’s possible, you know.
When a relief pitcher enters a game and walks three consecutive batters, we do not hoot at the umpire for calling so many balls. It’s the pitcher’s fault for not throwing strikes. We might be bothered by the inconsistency of the ump’s strike zone, but the pitcher’s job is to adjust to whatever he is presented. In general, a strike is a strike. And so it is with fouls.
Over the past two seasons, the NCAA rules committee and officials coordinator J.D. Collins have worked with the basketball people at the Division conferences to enforce the rules as they’re written and to reduce or eliminate unnecessary contact from the game. “Freedom of movement” has been emphasized to players, coaches and officials.
A lot of the time, that’s exactly the game we get. The 92-91 classic between Michigan and Oklahoma State on the tournament’s second day is an example of a game that would have been highly unlikely earlier this decade. Overt physicality would have robbed that game of the speed and skill that made it so extraordinary.
Collins admits that although officials have gotten much better at dealing with illegal screens and perimeter contact they are only beginning their efforts to clean up low post roughness. They are more likely to be inconsistent in this area of the court. An excellent example of their struggle in this area was the fourth foul called against Zach Collins of Gonzaga — he made a searing move in the center of the lane that so startled Carolina’s Isaiah Hicks he took a step backward at its suddenness. It looked like a foul live, and Harris read it that way and blew his whistle. But Harris’ angle was not great. Replay showed there was insufficient contact to warrant a foul call.
The notion that the officials should “let the players play” is entirely counterintuitive. The game stops less often when fewer fouls are called, but the flow is no better because the beauty of the game is usurped.
The public’s memories can’t possibly be so short they’ve forgotten the terrible Connecticut-Butler slugfest in 2011, a game in which Butler shot only 18 percent from the field, or the dismal Duke-Butler game in 2010, in which the two teams combined to score 120 points and was celebrated primarily because of a 50-foot shot that missed.
The players in this year’s championship game were called for fouls mostly for fouling. They fouled because their teams' offenses were so overly eager (UNC’s Justin Jackson shot everything like he was trying to will the ball through the backboard) or inordinately intimidated (Karnowski left nearly all his attempts short even though he was launching shots from directly in front of the goal).
This is not to excuse the numerous execution errors they made in such an enormous game: the second-half 3-pointer Gonzaga shot that traveled untouched over the end line and was awarded to the Zags; the late tie-up on which UNC’s Kennedy Meeks had his hand on the line and should have been called out of bounds; the failure to check the monitor on that play given its proximity to the baseline; the flagrant foul assessed to Karnowski after a replay review that seemed awfully like an effort to use the atone for what should have been a common foul against the Gonzaga center that instead was assessed to Berry.
The NCAA contends its officials do an exceptional job in the tournament and were getting better than 94 percent of calls correct. If they were to maintain, though, that the title-game crew ended anywhere near that number such evaluations would lose all credibility.
The effort to enforce freedom-of-movement directives led to all teams in the Final Four topping 70 points in Saturday’s games for the first time in 25 years. We are advancing to a game that much more closely resembles the contest of skill that basketball was designed to be. There were 34 teams that averaged more than 80 points per game during the 2016-17 season. In 2013, there was one.
That’s what happens when you “let the players play.” They don’t play basketball. They listen to coaches ordering them to bump cutters, hedge hard into ballhandlers coming off screens and dislodge post players trying to establish scoring position.
When the rules are enforced properly and skill abandons a player or players for whatever reason —in this case almost certainly because they allowed the occasion to diminish them in one way or another —they are going to grow more desperate to force the opponents’ skill to abandon them. They Zags and Heels were so out of sorts on offense in the championship game that they were hanging on for dear life on defense.
That’s the thing, though: That hanging on is a foul.