On Wednesday night -- OK, early Thursday morning, at an hour I'd rather not detail, lest my mother read this and become worried for my health -- I was up killing an all-nighter in advance of a too-early flight to New Orleans. Twitter friend John Ezekowitz came through in the clutch, suggesting I watch the 1991 Duke-UNLV national semifinal, and boy, was he right.
So there I was, sitting at my desk, delaying the last-minute packing in favor of Bobby Hurley's bounce passes and Christian Laettner finishes (en route to 28 points and seven rebounds) and Larry Johnson's leaping and UNLV's mind-blowing "Amoeba" defense. You remember Duke-UNLV in 1991. It was thrilling, high-stakes, emotionally intense basketball, played when players as professionally viable as Johnson stayed in school after winning national championships because, well, that was what college basketball players did. Duke-UNLV had all the atmospheric baggage of a capital-G Great Game, of course. It pitted the (code word alert!) "clean cut" Blue Devils, led by a classically-minded Bob Knight protege, against the star-studded Rebels and their flashy Las Vegas home and their NCAA-defying, towel-biting figurehead. But the game was also great in and of itself: Up-tempo, fast-paced, hard-fought, physical, with incredible skill infused throughout.
And yet as I watched two of the game's all-time best teams trade blows, creating a classic contest worthy of our fond memories, I couldn't help but think one slightly disturbing thought: This game could have been better.
Why? The referees.
It's fashionable to pick on Ted Valentine, aka "TV Teddy V," or some variation thereof. At this point, doing so is almost boring. (Almost.) But the following are facts: Valentine was one of the officials in this game, and even back in 1991 then, he was making sure everyone knew it.
At one point, after whistling a technical foul, he took a dead-sprint across the floor with his arms raised across his head. That complaint is merely aesthetic.
This one isn't: In the final minute of regulation, with the score tied at 77-all, as the tension built and the Indianapolis crowd became a roaring hive mind, Duke guard Thomas Hill drove to the rim. Billy Packer screamed: "He's got the angle!" The ball caromed off both backboard and rim. Laettner retrieved it. There were less than 15 seconds on the clock, and here was Laettner, with a chance to take down a team one of the best teams in the history of college basketball. And just as he came down, just as he was attempting a potentially game-winning eight-footer, just as the tension reached its apex ...
Valentine raced into the fray, emphatically flaying his arms in the "no basket" motion five times (yes, I counted), pausing only to show-point at Gray before resuming said flailing. Even worse, the call came after minimal, almost invisible body contact on a jump ball in the final minutes of a brilliant basketball game. Had it happened in the first two minutes of the game or deep in the first half -- whenever, really -- it would have barely been a foul. At this monumental point, the whistle was shocking.
Each year, Basketball Prospectus and ESPN Insider writer (and tourney chat buddy) John Gasaway offers a 12-step program bent on perfecting the sport of college basketball. Each year, most of the steps boil down to what John recently termed "intrusions:"
Whether it’s five timeouts in the last 60 seconds, or camera-craving excessive refereeing, the enemy is intrusiveness -- specifically intrusions from persons no longer in college. Think of a basketball floor as being populated by 15 people: ten players, three officials, and two head coaches. I want as much in-game basketball content as I can possibly get from the first ten and as little as feasibly possible from the last five. I would rather see college athletes playing basketball in the open floor than see them in a huddle listening to a grown-up on the sidelines, or arrayed around the lane waiting on two free throws, or, for that matter, on the bench in foul trouble.
All of which I agree with. Coaches should have fewer timeouts, foul-outs should be far less frequent, any and all stoppages should be minimized as much as possible and the game, to put it simply, should be allowed to flow. A few weeks ago, TrueHoop's Henry Abbott began a project called "HoopIdea," built to brainstorm and collect exactly these types of solutions. The problems are not limited to the college game. They've infected the sport we love at all levels. They include overcoaching, overofficiating, spurious use of charges (and flops) as a defensive tactic, alongside others too tiresome to name.
We don't love basketball because we like watching some highly paid guy in a suit diagram plays on a clipboard, or because we so enjoy the sight of TV Teddy's zealous mechanics. We love this game because we want to see the best players make the biggest plays when it counts the most. Everything else is an interruption.
College basketball in particular has suffered from a crisis of officiating in recent years, and the acrimony has reached its zenith this season. The official high-water mark came last weekend, when the officials essentially ruined what could have been a brilliant Ohio State-Syracuse Elite Eight game with an inexplicably high number of foul calls on each team. From John again:
Was [Syracuse's] actual basketball performance really three standard deviations more hacky than what they’d done all year? [...] I am saying the refs ruined what in all likelihood would have been a fantastic Elite Eight game. Don’t hate the refs, hate the rules. We’ve reached the point where officiating a basketball game is like judging a figure-skating competition. Fouls need to be redefined, and in particular we have to get away from this idea that a defensive player can demand the action be stopped and a foul be called one way or the other by flopping anytime he chooses.
Unfortunately, we can't fix these problems before Kentucky and Louisville and then Kansas and Ohio State take the floor on Saturday. Odds are, a lot of this stuff won't be fixed for years to come. We can hope the NCAA rules committee gets together this summer and decides to enact a few serious measures to the sport's benefit, but these things happen incrementally, if they happen at all.
What can we do? Beg. Plead. Wail and gnash our teeth. I don't know who the Final Four officiating crews will be this weekend, but it doesn't matter. I submit this solemn request all the same:
Please, please, please: Just let these guys play.
This is a fantastic Final Four. The atmospheric, fans-at-throats-at-dialysis-centers insanity that is Louisville-Kentucky on one side; the impending basketball brilliance that is Ohio State-Kansas on the other. If all goes well, we might get two epic games. One would suffice. Either way, neither deserves to have the air whistled out of it before it even has a chance to inflate in the first place. Please, referees, if you're out there, please: Every bit of contact does not require a foul call. Sometimes a block/charge isn't either. We don't care how exciting you can look when you put one hand behind your head and the other in the opposite direction. We're not here to see you.
This isn't all the fault of the referees. For starters, their job is hard. Really, really hard. They're human. They're amped up. I get it. Plus, the rules need to be redefined. The game needs more space to breathe. That's a systemic issue more than an officiating one.
But we don't have time to address all that now. The best we can hope for, 48 hours from what could be an epic Final Four in a town known for delivering them, is that the officials swallow their whistles and let the players decide their fates. That way, in 21 years, I won't be up at 3 a.m., reliving one of the greatest Final Four games in college hoops history, complaining in my own head about the referees.
Despite it all, this game is a beautiful thing. It deserves so much more than this.