When two fellows are asked to wrestle a 400-pound gorilla in front of 15,000 raving lunatics, any help is welcome.

That's the way most officials feel about the third referee that has been added to officiating crews in the Big Ten and the ACC.

"Most refs don't like to admit just how thankful they are to see it, because they're afraid people will say, 'Oh, you mean you made mistakes before?'" said Jack Manton, head of a three-man ACC crew.

"Officiating college basketball is about the most impossible job in the universe," said Manton, a trial lawyer in sane life.

"You might have 300 decisions to make - or not make - in a 40-minute game. If you're 90 percent right, that's good. Ninety-five percent - exceptional."

Then a crew might make 30 errors in a well-called game?

"Hummm," said Manton. "Looks that way, doesn't it."

Manton, and his crew collegues, Bob Hartsfield and Bill Cummings, work more than half their games in conferences outside the ACC in two-man teams.

The old two-man will still work - one official racing down court to stay in front of a fast break while the other trails it. Bu it's murder.

Each year, more players become sky pilots, living above the rim where every tip-in and blocked shot is a tinderbox call.

More and more teams use four-corner freezes, which were always a weakness of two-man crews, which struggle to keep track of five-second jump-ball calls.

Each year, as 6-foot-10, 240-pound players become common, the blind spots on the court become a bigger problem.

"Sometimes a two-man crew is fighting for dear life to keep its head above water, to control the play, listen to the coaches, calm the crowd," said one of the Manton crew.

"Now, the third man - the judge - can pay attention to goal-tending, basket interference, five-second tieups, blind spots in the lane, fouls away from the ball, last-second shots," said Hartsfield, one of the ACC's six judges.

Officials in two-man crews must sprint constantly from one foul line to the other end line.

Now, three-man crew officials still run the same 6.5 miles or so per game, but they can do it at a slower pace The trail official, who never comes inside the 28-foot sideline hashmark and often works near midcourt, can now backpeddle and still beat a fast break down court.

The judge, who runs from foul line to foul line, always on the same sideline, and always even with the ball, can often work a whole game without ever running harder than a jog.

Basically, the front and back officials work the old two-man mechanics, but at a saner pace and with more opportunity to look away from the ball. The judge does his specifically defined job, unless he sees something obvious.

"We're still learning not to step on each other's territory," said Manton.

What a pleasure. After years when much of the court was a blind-spot no-man's land, officials must worry about overlapping.

The result is that three-man crews can concern themselves with subtleties of game and tempo management, rather than [WORD ILLEGIBLE] about losing a grip on the gorilla.

In a world in which precious few men understand the mysteries of the "false double fouls," and which team gets the ball out of bounds after a bench-clearing fight on a dead ball, officiating is always going to border on the impossible.

"It takes only two seconds to get in hot water," said Hartsfield. "What happens if you line the two teams up at the wrong goals for the opening tip and a player drives in to shoot at the wrong basket and gets huled in the act?

"Does he shoot two free throws or not? And if he does, which basket does he shoot them at?"

Such nightmares will always lurk in the wings (answer: no foul shots at either basket. Ball out of bounds). But with three-man crews now the direction of the game, officials may win a few more split decisions from the 400-pound gorilla.

"It makes life more tolerable," said Manton. "But I know I'm never going to get rid of the guy in Chapel Hill who yells at me, 'If you had another eye, you'd be a cyclips.'"