GLENDALE, Ariz. — North Carolina won the national championship Monday night, and the majority of American sports fans may believe a trio of new, zebra-striped enemies blew it. Whistles dominated North Carolina’s disjointed, 71-65 victory over Gonzaga, especially in the second half, when referees called 18 fouls in the first 10 or so minutes and 27 total. There were boos, from both fan bases. There was social media scorn, from neutral observers. There was confusion, from a couple dejected Bulldogs players.
And from Mark Few, the coach who had been gutted and had every reason to lash out, there was this appraisal of the officials in the raw, immediate aftermath: “I thought they were great.”
The referees — Michael Stephens, Verne Harris and Mike Eades — had a massive influence on the national championship, without question. Their constant whistles spoiled the game’s flow, ensnared key players in foul trouble and made it an unsightly affair. “It got ugly,” UNC assistant Sean May said, and he was on the winning team.
But there is a difference between unfortunate influence and undue influence. The performance of the officials Monday night fell decisively into the former category. They called an abundance of fouls for the simple reason an abundance of fouls were committed. Two enormous, aggressive teams clashed. The officials called the game presented to them. It made them unpopular, but they did their jobs.
Even Few, at a moment he felt crushed and would be prone to lash out, could not disagree. Few did not only absolve the refs. He extolled them.
“I mean, these are two heavyweight teams going at it, inside, playing really, really physical basketball,” Few said. “You still have to officiate the game of basketball and that’s what they did. I had no issue whatsoever. I thought they did a fabulous job. And I’m on the losing end. And it’s just not an easy game to ref. We’re throwing the ball inside. They’re throwing the ball inside. Our guards go downhill. Their guards go downhill. So, I thought they were great.”
In this era, referee dissatisfaction in college sports has expanded into an insane obsession. Social media amplifies it and provides more outlets. Referee John Higgins received death threats and floods of online complaints about his businesses from Kentucky fans after the Wildcats’ Elite Eight loss to North Carolina. Attending games, one gets the sense some fans buy a ticket for the sole purpose of using the officials’ performance as an outlet for suppressed outrage.
Refs are easy targets, but they should not be reflexively blamed for a cruddy game. The players hacked one another and uglied up the game, intensity and style conspiring for an eruption of fouls.
“I don’t know that they got too involved,” UNC Coach Roy Williams said. “It’s a very difficult game to call. I’m sitting over there, I’m not thinking the officials are doing a terrible job. I swear to goodness, that’s not what I’m thinking. I’m thinking our offense stinks.
“We were at fault just as much as anybody else. But it was an ugly game because two teams really wanted it badly and the other team wasn’t going to allow them to have easy things. That’s what I think it was.”
There is a direct line between the calls Monday night and one college basketball’s best recent innovations. Before the 2015-16 season, in response scoring hitting a 60-year low two years prior, the NCAA instituted freedom-of-movement guidelines for officials, meant to reduce physicality on the perimeter and in the post. The rules worked. Scoring jumped six points per game, and shooting percentage hit a 25-year high this season. College basketball has grown more watchable and become a far better product, with better pace and fluidity. It started because officials called more fouls, and players and coaches adjusted.
The rule changes made it possible, if not inevitable, for teams who play like Carolina and Gonzaga to produce a game loaded with fouls. It happened on the biggest stage Monday night.
“We had this freedom-of-movement stuff in officiating that’s been a good thing for the game,” Gonzaga assistant coach Tommy Lloyd said. “And then you have two teams in there that are physical and hitting, so there’s a lot of contact. So it puts the refs in a lot of situations. I bet if you go back and watch it, as many as they called, they passed on the same amount. I’m not sitting here feeling like we got screwed, by any stretch.”
The constant calls, even if warranted, diluted the quality of the game. Nobody wants stoppages. When told how many fouls were called in the second half, Carolina assistant C.B. McGrath contorted his face as if he had just smelled something rancid.
“As a player, as a watcher, you want to see a game, not a free throw contest,” junior guard Josh Perkins said. “Refs will be refs. As a player, you never think you foul. They did their job. Maybe they did their job really well tonight.”
The final tally for fouls was perfectly balanced: Each team drew 22. But the particular distribution disadvantaged Gonzaga. Zach Collins, a 7-foot star freshman, barely played in the second half and fouled out with more than five minutes left. Planetary big man Przemek Karnowski played much of the second half with four fouls, which included a Flagrant 1 call upon a video review. Johnathan Williams also sat with four fouls for an extended period.
“We were negotiating our way through just massive foul issues, ones that we haven’t had all year,” Few said. “It was not looking good with about 10 to go there.”
In the opening minutes of the second half, Williams picked up his third foul while chasing a rebound against Kennedy Meeks. Few inserted Collins, who instantly picked up his third foul, also chasing a board against Meeks. Few gambled and kept Collins in the game, and he was called for his fourth with more than 15 minutes left.
Afterward, Collins said some calls made him feel as if everything he learned about playing had been wrong. He did not blame the refs, but he made clear the calls against him disappointed him. “It just sucks, man,” Collins said. “It’s the last game of the season. I think we adjusted too late to how the game was being officiated.”
“Both teams were getting foul calls,” Perkins said. “I just know some of our key guys were on the bench when they didn’t need to be. It just sucks.”
Williams freely opined both teams played poorly, and the quality of play affected the quantity of fouls. The Heels and Bulldogs combined for a ghastly 86 missed shots. The air balls and bricks not only hurt the game’s aesthetic quality, but also provided further reason for whistles to tweet. An inordinate number of fouls — including the fifth on Collins — were called on rebounds.
The officials made one crucial, memorable error. With about 40 seconds to go, a scramble for a ball ended with Meeks tied up with a Gonzaga player for a loose ball. Meeks’s hand clearly hit the baseline, with an official standing nearby. Refs called a jump ball, and no replay review corrected a clear officiating miscue.
“From my angle, it didn’t look like it was a situation where there was an out-of-bounds situation or I else I would have called for a review,” Few said. “So nobody made me aware of it or I certainly would have within the last minute there or two minutes. So that’s tough. It’s tough to hear. But, you know, that’s just the way it goes.”
It was not a good night for the officials. But it wasn’t their fault. They did their job. It was a bad game, but that was not the officials’ fault.