The NCAA Lost Tonight

This isn’t a lengthy diatribe against college basketball officials, nor is it an erring of a butt-hurt Gonzaga fan’s grievances.

North Carolina won ugly. Justin Jackson couldn’t throw a dart over Niagara Falls. Theo Pinson is a basketball’s worst nightmare (clang, clang, clang) and Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks… well, they’re just never very aesthetically pleasing. At one point, the Heels were 4/26 from three, but at about that same point, the Zags were 3/19 from the field in the second half. Karnowski couldn’t drop a golf ball on the fairway, and Josh Perkins struggled with not dribbling the rock of his foot.

In the waning moments, Nigel-Williams Goss, Gonzaga’s sole source of offense, tweaked an ankle, which rendered him all but useless for the final two possessions. But, Mark Few rode him anyways, and let him miss his final two looks at the rim. The first being a step-back jumper from near the top of the key down by 1 with a minute or so left. The second being a failed spin move in the lane, down three with twenty ticks on the monitor. In between those Gonzaga possessions was an Isaiah Hicks bucket – which shouldn’t have actually happened. On a prior offensive rebound, UNC was awarded possession on the arrow, although it was obvious Meeks’ hand was out of bounds while touching the ball. That should have kicked the ball back to the Zags with 40 seconds left and down one. Instead, Hicks got a bucket and stretched the Tar Heel lead to 3.

Zach Collins, frankly, was better than Karnowski. He not only tormented Hicks and Meeks in the paint on the defensive end and the boards, but used his massive frame to convert several buckets in the low post – something that Karnowski couldn’t do. But, he played only 14 minutes, and actually fouled out. In the first half he was a victim of the “pick up two fouls and sit for almost the entire first half,” then he picked up numbers 3 and 4 early in the second on two highly questionable calls.

Nigel Williams-Goss was hounded by Jackson and Pinson all night, and their athleticism and length bothered him considerably. But, he never tried to do too much, and when he got Britt on him, he took him into the post and made a few plays in the first half. Down the stretch, Williams-Goss took back over, scoring Gonzaga’s 8 final points, until tweaking his ankle with a minute and a half left. He just wasn’t right after that.

It’s hard for Few to pull the plug on his superstar in the waning moments of the National Championship Game, but NWG couldn’t walk, let alone run or cut or jump. He missed a jumper short, and stumbled on a spin move to end Gonzaga’s season. That decision will haunt both Few and NWG for quite some time.

Obviously, Few was hamstrung all night. Their best source of offense was getting Collins in the post and working off of him, but considering he only played 14 minutes, Few was forced to lean too much on the ever struggling Karnowski. In that last minute, had he pulled NWG, I’m not sure what Few would have drawn up, but I do think it would have been a better idea to give it to a player with TWO functioning legs, rather that NWG’s one. But look, I can sit here and Monday morning quarterback all night. Of course Few rolled with his star – he said he was good. Few had no choice. But, I can’t help but think had Collins still been available, Few would have been able to, at the very least, keep NWG in but let Collins navigate the block. This would have at least taken NWG out of the iso situation.

Also, it appears Justin Jackson now thinks he’s Ray Allen. Despite getting a few nice buckets in the lane throughout the course of the game, Jackson refused to take the smaller NWG into the paint for most of the game and preferred running off endless screens like BYU’s Jimmer or Klay Thompson. Actually, all three of Jackson, Pinson, and Berry all had a really quick trigger from downtown tonight – a shockingly quick trigger. It’s possible Roy Williams advised his guards to launch threes because he felt his team had a definitive advantage on the offensive boards… But that’s how bad it was. Their shot selection, at times, was so bad that I actually think it might have been strategic. But they won! They somehow won.

PJ said it best – the real loser tonight was everyone.

I get it – college basketball is sometimes ugly. I’m not one of those NBA snobs who can’t watch the college product because it is overwhelmingly inferior to the next level product. I love college hoops for its passion and theatrics, and tonight doesn’t change that. Some games are ugly, and we got one tonight in the National Title game.

This isn’t necessarily new. Butler and Uconn played in a Title Game a few years ago where the Bulldogs scored only three two-point field goals and scored 41 points. The Butler/Duke Final the year before wasn’t really much better.

The fans, the NCAA, the officials, the players, the coaches, EVERYONE needed a better ending. If Berry knocks down a game-winner, or NWG hits a go-ahead floater, THAT’S the lasting memory of a rather terrible game. We needed something bananas to happen down the stretch to get that awful, awful taste out of our mouths from the first 38 minutes. Instead, not only was that taste not vanquished – it was actually enhanced – by NWG tweaking his ankle and then suffering through the pain and muscling up two prayers when Gonzaga so badly needed a bucket.

It was such a fitting ending to a nearly unwatchable basketball game.

I will touch on the officiating a bit. Most of the Twittersphere had enough of the whistles, but Seth Davis was mostly just imploring the players to NOT FOUL. It’s a valid point – we tend to immediately blame the officials when we’re inundated with whistles, but sometimes it’s really that the players are incessantly fouling. Tonight, a fair amount of us were excited to see the matchups in the post. Both teams excel in the paint and on the glass, and seeing who would snatch the edge in that category was a big talking point leading up to the game. But, with a lot of big bodies comes a lot of fouls. With a lot of missed shots comes a lot of fouls. With mediocre guard play comes a lot of fouls. We suffered through all three of those tonight, and yep: there were a lot of fouls.

But still, the officiating was far from perfect. The missed out-of-bounds call on Meeks was a HUGE miss. Retroactively assessing a flagrant on Karnowski on a play where they initially called a foul on Joel Berry was a curious decision not only because there looked to be minimal contact, but because it was Karnowski’s fourth. Zach Collins’ fourth looked to be no more than him re-shuffling his feet on the block in front of his defender, and his third looked like him jumping vertically for a rebound. Williams picked up his fourth on a ticky-tack bump in the post.

It felt mostly like the refs went into the locker room at halftime and said “boy, we need to clean this game up” when in fact, they needed to do nothing of the sort. I’ll get back to this – NCAA officials will always be far from perfect, so it’s important for college basketball to move to a six-foul limit to give both the players and the officials more leeway. Yes, I bet if that if that referee could go back in time, he probably wouldn’t blow the whistle on Collins’ fourth foul. I’m willing to bet he’d enjoy the NCAA loosening up and giving them a bit more room for error. In part because of the 5-foul limit, I didn’t see either team’s best product tonight – that’s a HUGE problem for the NCAA.

But, the refs weren’t the only thing that made this game seem more like watching a C-level intramural game. The guard play SUCKED. Even Joel Berry, who was most lauded for his performance tonight, finished 7/19 from the field. He was the only Tar Heel to make a three. Theo Pinson is, frankly, just an ineffective offensive player. As is Nate Britt. Overall, UNC’s guard play has really lacked all year, and that makes for ugly basketball.

Gonzaga, on the flip-side, doesn’t really have a true point guard. NWG took a back seat a fair amount tonight with Jackson and Pinson on him. Josh Perkins, while he’s a pretty good sharp-shooter, can’t really dribble. The same can be said for Jordan Matthews and Silas Melson. The only two true floor generals are Berry and NWG, but both of them were consistently neutralized by good defense – this makes for a physical, ugly bloodbath.

And, again, shooting the basketball in a football stadium is HARD! It’s always been hard! The Final Four should be played in an NBA arena. It never will be, because the NCAA can sell 60,000 tickets. (The players also make none of that money, but that’s for another time). I’m not saying the dome is entirely why UNC was 4/27 from three – but it’s got something to do with it.

Yeah, I was for Gonzaga. I don’t like this UNC team, and there’s a couple family ties to Zag nation. I’m upset about the result. This game simply wasn’t satisfying – not because the Zags lost, but because it barely feels like UNC won. The NCAA has to make changes – it will never have the talent (obviously) of the NBA, but it can move toward rule changes that cater to that type of basketball. Advance the ball in the last minute in a timeout. Move to a 6-foul limit. Play in a freaking basketball arena for god’s sake. Change the rules regarding flagrant fouls. Pay the players.

The NBA Playoffs start soon. Let’s strike this from our memories.

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