The 98 officials selected for the N.C.A.A. tournament are randomly assigned, which often means an adjustment for coaches, players and the officials themselves.
There is a chance that a coach will not know all three officials and that the officials themselves have not worked together.
And with seasons, coaching careers and millions of dollars at stake, a delicate process must be played out under intense pressure on college basketball’s biggest stage.
“You have to quickly know what you can and can’t do and adjust,” Fisher said.
The N.C.A.A. coordinator of officiating, John Adams, who assigns referees for the tournament, lives by a simple mantra: “We don’t ever want to be the story.”
An officiating blunder darkened the Big East tournament when three referees missed two calls in the final seconds of the Rutgers-St. John’s game — including an instance when a Red Storm player stepped out of bounds with 1.7 seconds remaining — and hurried off the court into endless video loops.
Adams disagreed with the notion that coaches often do not know the officials in N.C.A.A. games, pointing out that most veteran coaches and officials have crossed paths at some point. When he assigns officials, Adams said, he prefers putting together three officials who have not worked together before. If there is a game between Michigan State and U.C.L.A., for example, Adams said he liked to assign an official who worked in the Big Ten and one who worked in the Pac-10, so neither coach feels slighted.
Adams also said there was a strong push by the N.C.A.A., through training and video study, to be sure that games are officiated the same way in the Big East as they are in the Big West, the Big 12 and everywhere in between.
“We’re trying to make it more of a science and less of an art,” he said. “We’re constantly identifying reoccurring plays and saying, ‘This is the way we’re going to referee.’ We’re trying to make it more like calling balls and strikes.”
The retired official Curtis Shaw, who worked the last of his seven Final Fours last year, said that a more uniform approach to refereeing had helped. As an example, he said a team like Wisconsin, which plays a lumbering, physical style, could be penalized if it had an official from the Southeastern Conference who was more accustomed to a free-flowing game; the official might not call the types of fouls the Badgers typically draw.
“Teams got hurt in the N.C.A.A. tournament,” Shaw said.
Notre Dame Coach Mike Brey said the dynamics of N.C.A.A. tournament officiating could be distracting to coaches and players. Coaches are given the names of officials an hour before a game. An assistant for Brey finds out where they are from, and sometimes Brey asks his assistants during a game, “What’s his name again?”
Brey said he had coached N.C.A.A. tournament games in which his players would return to the huddle after an early timeout and say, “This is a little different.”
“It needs to be addressed mentally by the head coach and verbally by the head coach to his team,” Brey said. “You have to try and let it not be the distraction. I’ve fallen into the trap where it has been a distraction at times. It’s different.”
The Colonial Athletic Association commissioner, Tom Yeager, said that having three officials unfamiliar to coaches and players was not a bad thing. He said high-profile coaches were always searching for an edge and did not like to leave their comfort zones.
“It’s like knowing the home plate umpire is going to give you the outside corner,” Yeager said.
Dick Cartmell will work his 20th N.C.A.A. tournament this year, and his career includes five Final Fours and three national title games. The best compliment he can be paid may be that few people recall him refereeing those games. Cartmell officiates primarily in the Pac-10, but he said that since he had been around so long, he has worked with most of the top East Coast officials. He said that when he was assigned to a game in which he did not know the coach, he made a point to introduce himself.
“Part of being a good official is good people skills,” he said.
Cartmell said the key to officials who had never worked together was adjusting to one another in a pregame meeting. In it, Cartmell emphasized that if an official has a “closed view” of a potential call, he shouldn’t blow the whistle; another official most likely has a better view. He said the officials do not do background checks, but discuss issues like whether a team plays zone or a full-court press, to figure out positioning.
“You hope that everything goes well and the team that deserves to win, wins,” he said.
Shaw said many people do not realize how competitive the process is for a referee to officiate in the N.C.A.A. tournament. Adams and a staff of four cross the country to scout officials at more than 400 games every year. They watch in person virtually the entire list of 350 officials under consideration for the tournament.
Along with prestige for the officials, there is financial reward. Adams said officials would make $1,000 a game in the first three rounds, $1,400 for the regional rounds and $2,000 each for the national semifinals and finals.
“The competition to move on with the referees is just as hard as the teams,” Shaw said.
Shaw and Cartmell agreed that the biggest recent change in officiating is the nationwide scrutiny through advanced technology and social networking.
“Scrutiny was there, but not nearly the magnitude of the last seven years with all the technology and bloggers and 400 different camera angles,” Shaw said.
“It’s a hard game to referee,” he added. “Kids are big and fast and young and athletic.”
Part of Adams’s job is having to call and apologize. He called Mike Rice last year after a flurry of bad calls cost Robert Morris its first-round game with Villanova. He explained to Rice, now the Rutgers coach, the reason behind the referee assignment. None of those three officials refereed another N.C.A.A. game that year.
“I felt that we could have done better for both teams,” Adams said.Continue reading the main story
With his sturdy, 6-foot-3 inch frame, his perma-tan, light brown floppy hair and, most of all, his high-profile assignments — including six Final Fours and the 2013 NCAA championship game — John Higgins has become the most recognizable referee in college basketball. That is not always a good thing.
His familiarity to television viewers, combined with his penchant for calling technical fouls, have subjected him to considerable mockery and loathing.
Soon after he worked the epic triple-overtime game between Kansas and Oklahoma on Jan. 19, he received a threatening email at his business. He forwarded it to the FBI.
"If I looked at everything people wrote or said about me, I'd be a basket case," Higgins said.
According to the website bbstate.com, Higgins has worked 59 games this season. That put him in a three-way tie for second among all Division I officials, with David Hall's 61 setting the pace. During one stretch in early January, he traveled 4,800 miles over three days.
Higgins often gets paid more than $3,000 per game. The more games he refs, the more money he makes. Though he could work every single day if he wanted, he gives himself every Friday and most Mondays off, and he disagrees with the suggestion that his performance suffers because he calls so many games. "I'd ask you, do you work five days a week?" he retorts. "I work five days a week for two hours a day. That's less than most people. Yes, I spend a lot of time on airplanes, but if you keep yourself mentally and physically healthy, it's no big deal."
That Big 12 officiating coordinator, Curtis Shaw, has heard occasional complaints about Higgins's heavy workload from coaches. Yet, he continues putting Higgins on the most important games because Higgins is among the very best at what he does. "A coach will say to me, 'He's working too many games.' So I'll say, 'O.K., I'll take him out of your game.' Then they say they don't want that," Shaw says. "John is a tremendous play-caller. When push comes to shove, in our business it's about getting plays right."
Higgins does not dispute the impression that he calls more technical fouls than most of his peers. "I'm not disagreeing, and I'm not apologizing," he says. "We're supposed to enforce the rules as written, right? The NCAA is always preaching sportsmanship, sportsmanship, sportsmanship. You can eat a little crow if you know you probably screwed a play up, but when you let coaches and players and coaches act like idiots, you lose all credibility. I try not to let it happen in my games, that's for sure."
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