The most memorable play from the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament was neither a buzzer-beater nor a game-saving steal. It involved a shot from Northwestern’s Dererk Pardon, who was defended by Gonzaga’s Zach Collins. Neither of those players defined the moment.
Instead, your stars: Brent Hampton, supported by Chris Rastatter and Jeff Clark. They were the game officials. The coaches don’t want them taking the lead roles. The fans don’t want them taking the lead roles. Heck, they themselves most certainly don’t want to take the lead roles.
And yet, after the first 52 games, no topic has permeated discussion around the tournament more than the officiating.
So much about sports is better now. The athletes are better — bigger and faster and stronger. The viewing experience is better — sharper and from more angles than ever before.
Why, then, is the officiating worse?
“I don’t think it’s worse,” former Maryland coach Gary Williams said. “Guys are more professional. They work harder in the offseason. It’s more competitive. There’s more money at stake. There’s a lot of reason for them to be better.”
Fine. But doesn’t it at least seem like they’re worse?
“Officials are as good as they’ve ever been, but . . .” longtime ref John Clougherty said, letting that “but” hang for a moment, “they come under so much scrutiny now. I made as many mistakes as any of those guys, maybe more.”
We’re talking about the referee who made one of the most memorable calls in NCAA history: Seton Hall’s Gerald Greene on Michigan’s Rumeal Robinson with three seconds left in the 1989 national title game. People have debated that call for — oh, only the 28 years since.
This guy thinks they’re under more scrutiny?
“If I was down refereeing Mississippi-LSU and there were two other games on TV that week, you never knew how many mistakes I made,” Clougherty said by phone Wednesday. “These guys have no chance. It’s not only the NCAA tournament. It’s regular season games. The microscope they’re under doesn’t allow them to . . .”
He searched for the perfect word and couldn’t find it. So fill in your own: “breathe” or “think” or, I don’t know, “blow the whistle at the correct freaking time?”
“Fans have a different viewpoint: that officiating is horrible,” said J.D. Collins, the NCAA’s national coordinator of men’s basketball officiating, who leads the selection of the 100 refs who work the tournament. “My statement would be: These guys are really good. I’m telling you, these officials are really, really good.”
Wait. The same guys we have spent the better part of a week berating?
“The misconception from fans is that these are bad human beings; they’re fill-in-the-blanks,” Collins said. “They’re trying their very best to get even better.”
And yet, for anyone who watched the games, the following questions are easy to answer: Did North Carolina’s Joel Berry II travel late in the Tar Heels’ win over Arkansas? (Yes.) Should the officials have called a flagrant foul against Seton Hall’s Desi Rodriguez in the waning moments of the Pirates’ loss to Arkansas? (No.) Did Gonzaga’s Collins stick his hand through the rim to block the shot of Northwestern’s Pardon? (Absolutely.)
Those plays and others from the first weekend have been dissected, and when the tournament resumes Thursday night for Sweet 16 games, there is every chance we will be left discussing another block instead of a basket. But what might, in real time, seem like a random call by a random guy is actually a carefully considered choice by a referee who was placed in that situation for a reason.
The NCAA’s Collins and his four regional advisers watch games in person beginning in November — 500 in-person evaluations of three officials apiece. In January, each conference submits nominations of its officials it deems worthy of working the NCAAs. In that process, the field is whittled from 1,000 to 350 or so and then narrowed further — to about 150 — in February before Collins makes his final selections for the tournament. And once they’re there, the refs are evaluated much as the teams are: officiate well and advance. Have a bad game, enjoy the summer.
Officials and coaches know other factors affect performance in the tournament. Most often, an official from the ACC — where Clougherty oversaw the officiating for 11 years before retiring last year — won’t be joined by others from the same conference in the tournament. That can impact chemistry, continuity and style. Clougherty remembers one of his 12 Final Fours, which he worked with two officials he didn’t know.
“We were never in sync,” Clougherty said. “I knew walking off that floor that we weren’t seeing the same game. I think we didn’t do a very good job.”
And yet the NCAA must balance officials from different regions and demeanors — “You wonder if a guy from the Pac-12 is thinking about East Coast bias,” Williams said. All of that was considered long before Northwestern took the court against Gonzaga.
And you know what’s funny? Collins said, through the first weekend of the tournament, officiating has actually improved — from below 93 percent accuracy in 2016 to above 94 percent this year.
Darn it if that 6 percent doesn’t stand out.
“Now, we are human,” Collins said. “We are going to miss some plays.”
And, it seems, the whole country knows it. Replay is one reason, for sure.
“Let’s say an official missed a foot on an out-of-bounds play,” Clougherty said. “Before there’s two or three more possessions, that’s going out everywhere [on social media]. It causes serious heartburn.”
But forget the replays that leave the arena and become GIFs by game’s end. What about the in-house replays that officials put under review? The idea is to make sure refs get the calls right. There might be, however, an indirect impact of that structure.
“They’ve hurt the confidence of officials,” Williams said. “You see some plays and there’s contact, and you go, ‘How come they didn’t call that?’ I think it’s probably easier not to make a call than to make a very close call that will be looked at over and over.”
That part, we know: The calls, made or not, will be looked at over and over. Clougherty, for one, watched Zach Collins’s hand go through the rim, watched it block the shot from Pardon. And he thought not of Collins and the technical but of officials Hampton, Rastatter and Clark — March focal points who should be anonymous.
“Once they leave that floor, they’re hurting,” Clougherty said. “Not only did it hurt Northwestern, it reflects on the whole crew. They’re sitting there with their head between their legs.”
Which is a much more comfortable position than some fans might prefer.