Once again, whistles and bricks dominate what should be the best game of the season.
The 2017 men's basketball tournament was, essentially, fine. Fine to good, even. Some of the seeding was preposterous, we'll grant you. A little light on buzzer-beaters and upsets in the first round, but those things picked up as the tourney progressed, and we still got two teams that played some of the highest-level ball throughout the season playing for the national championship. Once all the noise drops off, that's basically what you want.
All of which is to say, it was fair for fans to expect a good national championship Monday night. It was never going to rise to the level of last season's all-time classic — expecting a repeat would only devalue that game's magic — but nobody could seriously suggest at tipoff that these two teams weren't worthy participants for a title.
Instead, as is distressingly often the case anymore, we got a game that was flatly bad, at times unwatchable, and certainly didn't approximate the sport played at its best.
- Remember Duke-Butler in 2010? What do you remember about it? Right, Gordon Hayward's half-court shot that nearly won the game for the plucky Bulldogs — and probably nothing that preceded it. Both teams combined for 120 points and made fewer than 40% of their field goals, and future NBA star Hayward was a liability from the floor. But we could look past that, of course, because c'mon, Duke-Butler.
- UConn-Butler in 2011 was a lot harder to swallow. The Bulldogs improbably returned to the championship game as an 8-seed... and then put on an absolute horror show, scoring 41 points in the entire game and converting an unfathomable 3-of-31 two-pointers in the process. UConn was hardly better, trailing by as many as six points in the second half before winning nearly by default. That was bad.
- Louisville over Michigan in 2013 will go down in history for what should have been an all-timer of a block in a critical situation getting the dreaded anticipation foul, buffering the Cardinals' lead. But it was perfectly fine otherwise, and both teams featured plenty of NBA talent.
- UConn beating Kentucky in 2014 was a slog. Duke-Wisconsin was fine-ish. Villanova-UNC was an all-timer. That's a one-hot-title-every-three-year average, and that's so... (laaaaaaaame!).
But good lord, this year sits alone.
Referees called 44 fouls in this year's game — including 27 in the second half, and enough to put both teams in the bonus over the last 14 minutes. Deadspin has helpfully compiled a montage; see how many of these whistles make you think, "well, you have to call that":
As a result, the first time there was a stretch of even 90 seconds of uninterrupted play in the second half came after the under-8 media timeout. You'll find better rhythm in a high school Nirvana cover band than in this game. Even Bill Raftery, who's one of the two most eager-to-be-pleased members of the basketball broadcasting society, was borderline despondent by the time referees stopped play for several minutes to determine one player touching another's face/chin/whatever merited a flagrant foul.
And of course, with all that, uh, enthusiastic oversight, the referees somehow didn't notice (or bother to review) Kennedy Meeks' hand sitting out of bounds as he battled for a loose ball; it was eventually called a jump ball, and Isaiah Hicks converted a jumper with 27 seconds left to push the lead to 3.
The ref is literally staring at Meeks as his hand is out of bounds while holding the ball trying to decide if he should call another foul. pic.twitter.com/O8m1uFIS2C— Josh Jordan (@NumbersMuncher) April 4, 2017
Of course, we should point out that the referees weren't the only ones who could have used some more shining moments Monday night. Call it fatigue, the big stage, the cavernous stadium throwing off sight lines, whatever, but neither team shot like it wanted to win the game.
UNC guard Joel Berry II, who led all scorers with 22 points, shot 4-for-13 from behind the arc. That's not particularly notable but not particularly good either, except in comparison to his Tar Heel teammates who combined to go 0-14 from deep. Hell, I've got that club in my bag.
Not to be outdone, Gonzaga shot a mind-numbing 12-for-40 on two-pointers — barely better than half their season rate of 57%, or fifth-best in the nation coming into the game. Przemek Karnowski, whom Iowa fans will remember as the half-man, half-bear from 2015's second-round tourney game, went just 1-for-8, most of his misses coming near the rim. Meanwhile, All-American Nigel Williams-Goss shot 5-for-17 for the Bulldogs, including two empty possessions in the last minute after re-spraining his ankle. Props to Williams-Goss for gutting it out with everything on the line, but someone else has got to be taking those shots.
Oh, and even the doofus parade to the free throw line wasn't particularly beneficial to either team; UNC and Gonzaga converted just 62% of their free throws (17-for-26 for the Heels, 15-for-26 for the Zags).
None of this is to say UNC fans should feel bad about the win, or that it was illegitimate in any way. This banner's all yours and only the worst partisans and sports arguers (whom you should never listen to in the first place) would contend otherwise.
But in very broad terms, one would hope that this spectacle, this college basketball game we're holding in a stadium with 4-5 times more seats than a typical basketball arena and where everyone's watching and caps off this incredible tournament that generates billions of dollars for schools and coaches and sponsors and playe—err, generates so much love of competition and so many valuable lessons for these amateur student-athletes... one would hope that the quality of the product merits the attention. And for those very casual fans who tuned in Monday for the first time in a while to see what all the fuss was about, this couldn't have possibly made them more interested in college basketball. Not men's, anyway; the women's Final Four was great the whole way through.
The quality of refereeing has to get better. If that means calling better fouls, calling more consistent fouls, communicating to teams their expectations for play before things get out of hand, or even removing the damage that a ton of early fouls can do by switching to the four-quarter setup we witnessed in the NIT, well, whatever it takes. This was bad for the sport, and that conclusion should never happen after a championship game.