Opinion: College officiating is foul

It says a lot about the sorry state of college basketball officiating that two of the biggest calls in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament — at least in the eyes of local fans — are deservedly controversial.

The first helped bounce Wake Forest out in the second round: Oxford’s own Taron Downey, single-handedly trying to save the Demon Deacons, was called for carrying the ball late in the second overtime against West Virginia.

The second helped propel North Carolina into the Elite Eight: Villanova’s Allan Ray was whistled for a traveling call on the way to a basket that would have cut the Tar Heels’ lead to one point with nine seconds left.

Neither call decided the game, but both came close to removing any doubts.

(Before going any further, we must disclose our biases in the North Carolina religion that is college basketball. We are part of the Carolina congregation, although we’ll happily cheer on Wake and even North Carolina State when they aren’t playing the Heels. As for Duke, any Blue Devil win is a cause for sorrow.)

The fact is, Downey did slide his hand under the ball while making a hesitation move to the basket. That’s a violation.

We’re not as certain Ray took too many steps. But CBS analyst Bill Raftery is certain he did, and that’s good enough for us.

The problem is that in both cases, the referees chose a game-on-the-line moment to remember the rulebook. Top college guards palm the ball dozens of times a game, and you never hear a whistle. As for traveling, we can’t count as high as the number of steps most players take on the way to layups and dunks these days, but the baskets always count.

We’d love to see referees get back to enforcing the actual rules. If you palm the ball, it’s a carry. If you take three or four or five steps on the way to the basket, it’s a walk. Today’s college players have more than enough talent and athletic ability to play within those rules.

But the time to start enforcing the rules is in November, when the season starts, not in March, when everything is on the line. That’s true March madness.

Now, go Tar Heels!