Referees have an extremely difficult job. Let’s get that out of the way before we get to the bashing. They make at least 10 times more correct calls than incorrect ones, make half as many incorrect ones as the average fan would if placed in the heat of the moment, but never get praise; they only get furious criticism. That criticism is almost always fueled by instant replay, something referees often don’t have at their disposal.
But, with all that being said, there have been some very costly and very incorrect calls in the 2017 NCAA tournament so far. Five in particular have come late in tight games. Here’s a look at those five, ranked from most egregious to most debatable:
1. Gonzaga’s goaltend
This one isn’t debatable. Northwestern clawed back to within five points of Gonzaga after trailing by 22, and Dererk Pardon was a split-second away from cutting the lead to three. Gonzaga freshman Zach Collins reached his hand up through the cylinder and rejected the shot:
Northwestern's coach got a tech for this, but he has a point ???? pic.twitter.com/9xFS9n5ves
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) March 18, 2017
By rule, this is goaltending. The NCAA explained that in a statement admitting that the refs erred. But it was not a reviewable play. Instead of getting the call reversed, Chris Collins’ frantic reaction got him a technical foul — a four-point swing that changed the game and helped Gonzaga on to victory.
2. North Carolina’s travel/charge
With under a minute to play in top-seeded North Carolina’s game against eighth-seeded Arkansas, the Tar Heels led by one. Joel Berry had the ball with five seconds on the shot clock. He drove to his right, picked up his dribble after two bounces and took… three? Four? Five steps? It was certainly more than two.
It was also certainly a charge if it wasn’t a travel. But the referees’ whistles were silent, and Berry’s chuck off the backboard was tipped in by Kennedy Meeks. North Carolina prevailed.
3. Phantom Saint Mary’s foul
Late in a close game between No. 2 seed Arizona and No. 7 seed Saint Mary’s, Gaels forward Jordan Hunter was called for a loose-ball foul after a teammate’s missed 3. At first glance, Hunter did make contact with Arizona’s Allonzo Trier (35). But a second look shows that the foul should have been on Arizona’s Lauri Markkanen (10), who made contact with Hunter from behind. That’s the reason Hunter flew out of bounds.
— gifdsports (@gifdsports) March 19, 2017
There also simply wasn’t enough contact between Hunter and Trier to call a foul on the St. Mary’s player in that situation anyway.
4. Seton Hall’s flagrant foul
Down by one with the shot clock turned off in its first round game against Arkansas, Seton Hall did just that. Desi Rodriguez shoved an Arkansas player to put the Razorbacks on the line. There was one problem: The referees went to the monitor and deemed the push a Flagrant 1.
This was called a flagrant. pic.twitter.com/IcqB89sFfP
— CBS Sports CBB (@CBSSportsCBB) March 17, 2017
By rule, sure, the call is correct. There was no play on the ball. If this play occurs with 10 minutes left in the first half and is determined to be a flagrant, there is no argument or hubbub. It’s a flagrant. But at least 50 percent of the fouls at the ends of games aren’t plays on the ball, and flagrants rarely, if ever, get called. In fact, on Sunday, USC committed a similar foul in a similar situation against Baylor. The refs reviewed the play, and kept the call as a common foul. Refs often use common sense in these situations. The officials in the Seton Hall-Arkansas game didn’t.
5. Dillon Brooks’ charge
With 1:38 remaining in Sunday’s second-round matchup, Rhode Island and Oregon were tied at 72. The underdog Rams had the ball. E.C. Matthews drove from the left wing, where Dillon Brooks was waiting. Matthews elevated, but didn’t go straight into Brooks. He slid toward the baseline, but made contact with Brooks because Brooks slid underneath him. Brooks leaned in with his right shoulder, hit Matthews’ right hip, and fell to the floor. The refs whistled Matthews for the offensive foul:
Horrible charge call. Watch the vectors here. Matthews going towards baseline, Brooks falls towards rim. Can u hear me shaking my head? pic.twitter.com/YUcfdyFSPH
— BBALLBREAKDOWN (@bballbreakdown) March 20, 2017
As is the case with all of these calls, block/charge decisions are extremely difficult to make in real time. This one was wrong, though, and was costly for the Rams. Two possessions later, Tyler Dorsey won the game for Oregon with a 3-pointer.
There were other questionable calls over the first four days of the tournament, but these five were the most costly.