John McGrath

McGrath: Referees need to swallow their whistles and let college basketball players play


Washington’s Marquese Chriss hangs onto the basket after dunking against Montana. Chriss would receive a technical foul for the chin-above-the-rim dunk.
Washington’s Marquese Chriss hangs onto the basket after dunking against Montana. Chriss would receive a technical foul for the chin-above-the-rim dunk. The Seattle Times

Aside from the nonstop whistle blowing Saturday, the loudest noise during Washington’s 92-62 victory over Montana was made by the crowd’s response to Marquese Chriss’ dunk off a backboard set-up from Dejounte Murray.

The made-for-the-playground stunt drew a roar and, keeping with the theme of the day, a whistle. Seems Chriss was too energetic with his chin-over-the-cylinder rim hang, a violation that counted as a technical foul and underscored the suspicion the three officials were competing to see who could call the most fouls.

Huskies forward Matisse Thybulle committed a defensive foul on Montana’s initial possession, with 19 minutes, 25 seconds remaining before halftime. Five seconds later, the Grizzlies were charged with their first foul. A second later — literally, one second — Montana was charged another foul.

When officials are calling three in six seconds during the first minute, it’s an indication the game will become a two-hour exercise in stopping and starting. The teams combined to commit 31 fouls before halftime, and though the Huskies seemed to get the message — Noah Dickerson was their only player to foul out — Montana remained in foul trouble for the entire afternoon.

This wasn’t a garbage-time example of one team using free throws as an attempt to stop the clock. This was merely a typical college basketball game in 2015, six months after the NCAA rules committee implemented several changes to increase offense. Last season’s average score was a historically low 67.6, and there was a corresponding sag in television ratings.

Something had to be done, and something was: Shot clocks were reduced to 30 seconds, and officials were informed that just about any defensive tactic more aggressive than crouching was worthy of a whistle. A Huskies squad that sometimes finds five freshman on the court together has been challenged to adjust to the adjustments.

“It seems like they’ve loosened up a little bit on the foul calling,” coach Lorenzo Romar said after his team improved to 7-2. “We’re trying to get used to it. Andrew Andrews has learned to pressure the ball without fouling, which is good. And the rules have allowed him to do that, and kind of forced him to do that.

“As far as the shot clock? Whether it’s 35 seconds or 30, that’s never affected us. That part of it hasn’t changed.”

At their best, the Huskies are a blast to watch, often complementing full-court defensive pressure with high-octane offense. There is something beautiful about a fast break executed off a stolen pass.

But their games — and the games of college basketball in general — are fraught with interruptions. Minor limitations regarding time outs were approved by the rules committee but there are still too many of them, and relying on replay review to get the call right — there were three such delays Saturday — has extended time outs.

And then there are all those fouls.

A few weeks ago, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo used his postgame press conference — after a victory, no less — as a platform to decry the emphasis on calling defensive fouls.

“I think there’s a difference between freedom of movement, which is the big word to use, and touching a guy 30 feet from the basket,” said Izzo. “I think if you impede progress, that’s a foul.”

For Montana, virtually everything was a foul Saturday. It’s best player, former Huskies forward Martin Breunig, picked up three in the first half and was limited to 15 minutes of action before fouling out.

“I could see he was getting frustrated, like any competitive guy who’s not playing up to expectations,” said Chriss, “But he’s a good player.”

As for Chriss, who during the first month of his college career has been challenged to avoid foul trouble, his game was surprisingly clean in terms of whistle-avoidance.

“I wouldn’t say I was less aggressive, just more conservative,” he said after his 22-point, 11-rebound performance. “I told myself, instead of going for a block I can let this one go instead of getting a foul and coming out of the game.”

In other words, the freshman is learning to adjust to the adjustments. Until that ability becomes the norm throughout college basketball, whistles will serve as the soundtrack for the 2015-16 season.