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Sports

April 5, 2014

As Final Four tips off, all eyes are on the refs

Florida brings Scottie Wilbeken to the Final Four with its championship hopes. Kentucky has Julius Randle, Wisconsin features Frank Kaminsky, and Connecticut will be a tough out as long as Shabazz Napier has the ball.

Chances are that one of those players will be the tournament’s Most Valuable Player and the person everyone is talking about. Let’s just hope the buzz after Monday night’s championship isn’t about Doug Shows or John Higgins or any of the eight other officials selected by the NCAA to officiate the tournament.

If that’s the case, it means a controversial call determined the 2014 champion,  not a player who made an exceptional offensive or defensive play.

This year’s tournament - especially last weekend’s games - shows once again that basketball is a tough game to officiate.

Criticism of the officials’ recent work has been harsh. One writer panned them for “tarnishing” March Madness, another said “the refs ruined the end of a thriller," and a third described the men in the striped shirts as the NCAA’s “uncertainty factor."

The skill and ability of today’s collegians, blended with exceptional size and strength, have young men doing things that would have been thought impossible not long ago. Add to that new rules and “points of emphasis” in the rule book -- let alone the use of technology to review plays -- and players, coaches and officials must manage a sport that at times seems unmanageable.

Several critical calls in the Sweet 16 had fans protesting. In the Arizona -Wisconsin showdown in the West regional, referee Tony Greene called a Wildcats  player for charging with 3.2 seconds to play in overtime with Wisconsin leading 64-63.

That was followed by a disputed out-of-bounds play. At question was whether Arizona would get a chance at a game-winning shot. After an interminable delay - one that approached five minutes as officials reviewed the replays - the original call was reversed and the ball awarded to Arizona. The Wildcats mishandled a basic inbounds play and didn’t get off a shot before the horn sounded.

After almost 45 minutes of action, the difference between victory and defeat rested with a referee’s call.

Disputes have been common in the tournament. Tennessee appeared on the verge of an amazing, come-from-behind upset against Michigan when a late-game charging call went against the Volunteers and bailed out the Wolverines. Louisville fans still have a hard time accepting three soft fouls called on their big man, Montrezl Harrell, against Kentucky.

Calls will always be disputed. What clearly looks like a charge to one fan is obviously blocking to another. People understand that. What’s difficult to accept is inconsistency by those with the whistles.

In an attempt to inject more scoring into the game, officials began the 2013-14 season by calling fouls on defenders who used their hands to impede offensive players from driving toward the basket. That led to more fouls and more scoring. It worked until conference play picked up and the strict interpretation was relaxed.

Then complaints grew when contact on the perimeter was called one way while  banging closer to the basket was permitted. Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim became so incensed that he picked up two technicals and was ejected from a late-season game against Duke.

Officiating big-time college basketball is an inexact science. Referees are charged with managing a game designed with grace and skill in mind but played by burly men who see it as war. Theirs is a thankless job for which they receive a little money and a lot of abuse.

But losing is tough on coaches and players - especially when championships are at stake.

Arizona coach Sean Miller could only think about what might have been after the Wisconsin loss, reflecting on a close call that went against his team.

“I thought it was a really, really tough call,” he said. “I’m going to stop there. I’ve already been fined.”

Tom Lindley is a CNHI sports columnist. Reach him at tlindley@cnhi.com.

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