NCAA tournament referees lack consistency and accountability

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When North Carolina’s Brady Manek elbowed Baylor’s Jeremy Sochan in the face with 10:08 left in an NCAA Tournament second-round game on Sunday, it sent the officiating team to work. the game on the replay monitor with a big decision to make. Kick a key player out of a knockout match, or award a lesser penalty and keep playing?

In the end, the crew of Donnie Eppley, Kipp Kissinger and Brent Hampton made the right call: it was a flagrant foul of 2 and Manek had to leave. The weird part is everything that happened afterwards.

The game turned into a street fight, with Baylor implementing an extremely physical all-court press that reduced a 25-point deficit to a manageable number in incredibly quick time. Rather than curbing contact, referees have become spectators. The Bears bumped, shoved and slapped, and the whistles didn’t sound – well, at least not against the aggressor who was playing desperately to get back into the game. The whistles sounded repeatedly against North Carolina.

Aside from a double fault given to both teams, the next seven calls were all fouls on the Tar Heels. Not to mention the no-calls that went against Carolina as she was under attack. Most glaring: Guard Caleb Love stuck in midfield, resulting in a turnover and Baylor dunk. There was also a blatantly missed out of bounds call late in the game that was ruled Baylor ball and had to be overruled in review.

The defending national champion Bears kicked off the game in overtime, a stunning comeback in 10 minutes of playing time, but they had help. North Carolina regrouped and won in OT, which spared officials even more criticism than they received via social media as the hackfest unfolded.

“No reasonable person could suggest the game was called correctly,” said ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, a member of the NCAA men’s basketball competition committee and a staunch on-air critic for the state. current state of college hoops officiating.

Now here’s the kicker: two of the three officials in this fiasco will work in the Sweet Sixteen. According to Stadium’s Jeff Goodman, Hampton is one of nine assigned to work in the Eastern Region this week and Kissinger will work in the South. They somehow scored high enough to advance.

Bad refereeing was rewarded. And not just in this game. After two rounds of national outcry over tournament officiating, the NCAA says all is well and recognizes no extraordinary issues.

“The officials have done a good job in the tournament so far,” said national officials coordinator JD Collins. Sports Illustrated this week. “Over the past three seasons we have averaged 96% call accuracy when we whistle and (approximately) 90% when we add plays where we should have whistled. This year’s officials are again at that level this year.”

Bilas’ response to that 96% mark: “JD Collins is a nice guy, but who are we trying to fool here? Whoever created this rank, I want to take his class. That’s an easy A.

As noted above, there were issues beyond North Carolina-Baylor that did not rule out several of the officials involved. While Brian O’Connell rightly did not step forward to work the Sweet 16 after calling a mystifying technical foul on Illinois’ RJ Melendez for hanging on the rim, others involved in the controversy have advanced. .

In Notre Dame’s close loss to Texas Tech, Red Raiders forward Kevin McCuller dunked on a breakaway. For some reason he reached up and grabbed the edge with his left hand before rinsing the ball – a clear field goal interference call that was not made. Replays showed veteran official John Higgins watching the game directly and still not making the call. This game also got extremely physical in the final minutes which benefited the Red Raiders.

“John Higgins, he’s gotta get into the Big 12 Hall of Fame this summer, right?” Said a prominent college coach who watched the Notre Dame-Texas Tech game, noting that Higgins has long called Big 12 games and that the Red Raiders are members of that conference. “Why would he be allowed to cancel this match?”

Higgins moved forward to work in the Eastern Region, according to Goodman. Paul Szelc, who also played in the Notre Dame-Texas Tech game, will work the southern region this week.

The final game of the second round saw TCU attempt to shock No. 1-seeded Arizona on the last possession in regulation. Guard Mike Miles dribbled near midfield in the closing seconds and was eventually trapped, kicked and returned the ball. There was no call of an obvious foul, but neither was there a back and forth call on MIles, who walked to the halfway line just before being blocked by the body.

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The officials, at least one of whom looked uncomfortable, said nothing. Crew members Keith Kimble and Doug Shows will be working in the Midwest and West regions this week, according to Goodman.

“The call in the Arizona-TCU game, they missed one,” Bilas said. “It’s the in-game calls that haven’t been made that are the problem. But the veteran officials know someone has to step up. They need someone to call the games.

Indeed, the official talent pool is small enough that great referees are virtually guaranteed to progress through the tournament, regardless of their actual performance. Ken Pomeroy’s website tracks all Division I umpiring assignments and ranks umpires based on the level of regular season games assigned to them, according to his metrics. His reasoning is sound: the officials most valued by conferences get the biggest games.

This year, 17 of Pomeroy’s top 18 umpires are still in the tournament. This includes Kimble (#1), Higgins (#5), Kissinger (#7), Shows (#8) and Szelc (#13), although they are involved in controversial games. Did they get there because of their past reputation or their current performance? “It’s kind of an old boys’ network,” said one trainer.

Tournament team administrators, Division I men’s basketball committee members, and official monitors all provide referee feedback after each game in the tournament. Three options are offered to them to evaluate an official: “strongly recommend” to advance; “recommend” to move forward; and “does not recommend” moving forward. Some wonder how much their comments are taken into account.

“Why even ask our opinion if they just want to advance whoever they want?” Asked an administrator who gave a “do not recommend” vote over the weekend to an official who moved forward.

Collins said he has only heard one manager complain in 52 tournament games so far. But around the world, people talk as much about officiating as they do about Cinderella Saint-Pierre and Mike Krzyzewski’s quest to stand out.

“It’s the first time in a long time that refereeing has been a story,” said a prominent sporting director. “It’s disappointing.”

The disappointment is threefold:

  • Arbitration is difficult, and has become a thankless task. It is difficult to cultivate the next generation of referees when the current generation is steeped in criticism.
  • The magnificence of this tournament is undermined by conspiracy theorists who would lose badly and who would rather declare their team cheated by the referees than beaten. This reflects the current political climate, where losers readily call the election stolen instead of lost.
  • Public doubt in officials is problematic for the NCAA to confront and publicly acknowledge during the March Madness showcase. This no doubt feeds into some of the NCAA’s “It’s all good” rhetoric.

“I understand why people in positions of authority are loath to undermine trust in those responsible,” Bilas said. “We don’t need to do this. But neither do we need to make excuses and rationalizations. We must be accountable. »

The main problem as Bilas sees it – and I agree – is that the attempt to restore freedom of movement a few years ago has not only stalled, it has backtracked. The college game returned to the hammer-and-clamp defense beating the pass-cutting offense. Art is losing to brute force.

“The way these games are officiated and announced and the way college basketball kind of evolved into that…it’s quite similar to rugby in a lot of cases,” Gonzaga’s Mark Few said Wednesday.

This can be exacerbated in the tournament, when officials are even more reluctant to eliminate star players or make a call that decides a season-ending game for the losing team. Probably the smartest approach for a referee trying to move forward is a no-call on a controversial call. Letting the players decide on the pitch is a nice feeling, but not calling fouls can also decide a game.

The defining statistic on this issue: The 16.65 fouls called per team per game is the lowest in Division I history, or at least dating back to 1948, the first year for which the NCAA has national statistics. If that holds for the remainder of the tournament, it will be the third straight year for a record fouls called.

Matching numbers: The score fell to 71.06 points per game, the lowest since 2015. Field goal percentage is 44.08%, down from last year and the second lowest in last six years.

“They don’t call clear fouls,” Bilas said. “It’s quite simple. There has been great progress, and we have seen it all disappear this year.

Rarely has that been clearer than in the North Carolina-Baylor demolition derby on Sunday. But in a sport short of quality officials, even presiding over this fiasco isn’t enough to send the whole team home for the rest of the tournament.

More college basketball coverage:

• Ranking of the Women’s Sweet 16 2022
• SEC men’s basketball sees hard reset with slew of new coaching hires
• Miami’s Isaiah Wong focused on capturing the moments in March
• March Madness led to a truly diverse and unpredictable Male Sweet 16

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