While watching the whistle-marred slop-fest between Gonzaga and North Carolina on Monday night, I recalled what a classic NCAA championship contest looked like before rules were changed.
On April 1, 1985, Villanova beat Georgetown, 66-64, at the University of Kentucky’s Rupp Arena. (Once upon a time, Final Four games were played in actual basketball arenas, rather than domed football stadiums.) Nobody who witnessed Villanova’s epic upset left the building that night wondering about ways to fix what clearly wasn’t broken.
The Wildcats executed a succession of half-court sets without regarding the shot clock, implemented the following season. They went 22 of 28 from the floor, thanks to a reliance on high-percentage attempts instead of launching bombs behind the three-point line, implemented in 1986.
Two officials were tasked with calling fouls, not three. Action wasn’t suspended so the officials could review replays, and then confer about whatever they saw on videotape that they failed to see in real time.
Georgetown relied on a rugged defense that initiated contact, yet the 1985 championship game flowed at a tension-building pace, culminating with a fantastic finish.
Fast forward to Monday, when the Zags and Tar Heels combined to shoot 52 free throws. Some of the free throws were good, which explains how the final score — North Carolina 71, Gonzaga 65 — resembled a version of basketball John Wooden and Dean Smith might have recognized.
The score was a mirage that masked incompetence on both sides. During the second half, Gonzaga went 8 for 29 from the floor. For the game, they had 14 turnovers. Passes were forced and haphazard, and on those occasions a crisp possession produced the intended result — a Przemek Karnowski layup — the big guy displayed the touch of a sumo wrestler’s first dive off the high board.
North Carolina, meanwhile, had little patience for sustained half-court sets. The Heels were digging the long ball. They took 27 shots behind the line, converting four.
“It was an ugly game,” Carolina coach Roy Williams said afterward, responding to a question about the officiating. “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.”
When the coach of the team that just won the NCAA tournament is lamenting how his offense stank, it makes me wonder if college basketball has benefited from such rule-book revisions as the shot clock and the three-point line.
Take the shot clock, originally set at 45 seconds and now down to 30. Liberated from the pressure of beating the buzzer on every possession, Villanova was able to turn its quest to beat a far more athletic team into a fair fight steeped in half-court fundamentals.
The shot clock prevents stalling, I get it, but is there one high-school recruit in the world anxious to sign with a program whose coach is a proponent of icing the ball for 40 minutes?
Kids are born to run, and the attention span of kids has not expanded since 1985. Prolonged stalling is not an option, but slowing things down with choreographed screen patterns is more appealing than clanged long-ranged shots answered with clanged long-range shots,
Which brings me to the 3-point line, and the ludicrous notion a shot out of the boonies, attempted by one player convinced his hand is hot, is worth more than a shot requiring the cohesion of five players.
The 3-point line allows a team facing a double-digit deficit to mount a comeback — I get that, too — so here’s a thought: Restrict the 3-point basket to the final five minutes of each half.
If necessary to sustain a frantic rally, ugly basketball can be tolerated in five-minute segments. But when a team goes 4 for 27 behind the line and still wins a national championship, it’s enough to induce vomiting.
Then again, so were all those foul calls Monday. A player bumping into an opposing player, away from the ball, should not draw the whistle that brings everything to a halt and sends key contributors to the bench.
Speaking of delays: Determining the particular flagrance of a foul — like murder, there is flagrance in the first degree, and in the second degree — now demands the officials gather for a replay review.
When a foul is flagrant, it seems to me, the flagrant foul is evident to the official standing a few feet away. If the official standing a few feet away does not identify flagrancy, it is not a flagrant foul.
Throwing a punch, for instance, is flagrant. Karnowski’s inadvertent collision in pursuit of a loose ball, which gave the Tar Heels two free throws and a crucially important possession, defies any definition of “flagrant.”
Heavy-handed officiating suffocated momentum swings, but as Williams noted, it was an ugly game anyway, full of junk shots, truncated possessions and inevitable processions to the free-throw line.
Rules changes are supposed to bring progress, but progress hasn’t been achieved.
College basketball never was more riveting, never more exciting, than it was on the first night of April 1985, when the absences of a shot clock and 3-point line enabled Villanova to realize an impossible dream.
John McGrath: @TNTMcGrath