GLENDALE, Ariz. — This year’s national semifinals were the second most watched Final Four of the last 12 years. Overall interest in college basketball was up significantly during the NCAA tournament this season as the nation eagerly anticipated Monday’s national championship game between No. 1 seeds Gonzaga and North Carolina.
But even though the Zags and Tar Heels played a back-and-forth game that was pretty close throughout, with North Carolina winning the title with a 71-65 victory, basketball wasn’t the main discussion surrounding the game.
It was the officiating and how brutal the game was to watch.
Combining the nerves of a title game, the matchup of two teams that like to throw a lot of weight around on the interior and an overzealous officiating crew that was quick to blow whistles for touch fouls and it made for a near disaster.
Much of the second half, in particular, was completely unwatchable despite the close score.
Of the night’s 43 fouls, 26 of them came in the second half. Both teams were in the bonus with 14 minutes left. Foul trouble plagued big men on both teams as neither side could establish any kind of rhythm offensively. With seven minutes left, the two teams had combined to shoot 11-for-42 from the field in the second half.
And the national championship game, college basketball’s biggest showcase game, became a free-throw contest.
America should have been talking about two of the best teams in the country — a fun clash of a new-school upstart against an old-school powerhouse. Instead they complained about the horrible calls and how awful the play was on the floor. The national title game usually leads to a lot of casual NBA fans tuning in and complaining about college basketball. Those people had every right to lob grenades at college hoops after Monday night’s miserable outcome.
Games like this aren’t going to keep fans coming back for more. Monday’s game showed exactly why college basketball needs to make serious changes to move the game into modern times.
Changes need to be looked at when it comes to the referees but there isn’t a simple solution that can magically fix things overnight. Overhauling the officiating of college basketball would be incredibly difficult and time consuming. It just isn’t the type of thing that is fixed by snapping your fingers.
There is, however, a simple solution that the NCAA should use to enhance the quality of play and watchability for next season.
It’s time that the NCAA seriously examines implementing the experimental rule that they used in this season’s Postseason NIT that resets team fouls at the 10-minute mark of each half.
Moving to four quarters instead of two halves would seem like a natural play for college basketball since the NBA and the international game already abide by that common set of rules. There are also a lot of purists who don’t want college hoops to have an identical, four-quarter structure to the NBA.
The compromise is to keep 20-minute halves while still resetting team fouls during the middle of each half.
In the experimental NIT format, teams shot two free throws after a four-foul limit was reached during each 10-minute segment. Team fouls then were reset for each team when the clock hit the 9:59 mark of each half.
Resetting team fouls isn’t going to stop bad calls from happening. It’s not going to prevent basketball players from making silly mistakes and committing dumb fouls. But it takes the game out of the hands of referees and prevents people from watching 10-plus minutes of bonus basketball. Nobody wants to watch a free-throw fest.
But it happens way too often with the way the modern college basketball is being officiated. Watch a physical, pressing team like West Virginia play and you might be in for a game that is loaded with free throws that lasts closer to three hours instead of two. When two interior-oriented teams with multiple big men like Gonzaga and North Carolina go to battle it often ends in a similar fate like we saw on Monday night.
The Gonzaga and North Carolina game wasn’t some strange outlier where the basketball was randomly bad. This sort of unwatchable game happens way too often throughout the course of the season when there is minimal game flow and it becomes a parade of free throws.
As the NCAA strives for more freedom of movement for off-the-ball players while emphasizing certain touch fouls, it leads to some long and miserable games if a certain style of play might be involved. And one of the best parts about college basketball is how many unique ways teams can play basketball and still be effective.
Attention spans are too limited now to ask people to watch games like that. Potential fans are simply going to change the channel and fixate on the hot-button political landscape or another sport that has a more consumable overall product.
Foul-riddled games that feature a lot of free throws are still going to happen regardless of when team fouls might get reset. But resetting team fouls would also be a progressive step in the right direction for a sport and a governing body, the NCAA, that is often too slow to react to things that everyone else can plainly see.
Major professional sports regularly make rule changes to enhance the quality of their product for a consumer-based audience while also improving overall game flow. It’s time for the NCAA to adopt some changes to its rule book so it can continue to increase its audience during the best sporting event of the year.
People want to watch basketball.
They’re sick of referees continuing to steal the spotlight from what really matters.