After Six Refs Sent Home, March Madness Officiating Is Already Under the Microscope

An ill-advised dinner out in Indy has put even more pressure on the profession ahead of college basketball's showcase event.
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The men’s NCAA Tournament hasn’t started yet, and it’s already lost 10% of the officials it selected to work the 68-team fandango. This is a very bad development for a sport that’s been dealing with an officiating crisis of confidence.

NCAA vice president for basketball Dan Gavitt confirmed on a media Zoom call Tuesday that six of the 60 tourney officials have been disqualified due to COVID-19 protocols. One tested positive and the other five are out due to contact tracing. This was a confluence of poor preparation and poor decision making.

The officials reported to their assigned hotel in Indianapolis on Sunday only to find that their rooms and meals weren’t ready, which is hard to excuse given the premium put on this event and its accompanying safety protocols. The rooms for all essential tournament personnel pretty much have to be ready.

Instead, Stadium’s Jeff Goodman reports the refs “were allowed to leave for dinner,” which was asking for trouble. When one later tested positive, the entire dinner party was dismissed from the Big Dance. Hope the shrimp cocktail was worth it. “An unfortunate and disappointing situation,” Gavitt termed it.

An empty Mackey Arena sits ready for March Madness

According to media reports, the officials who blew their tourney shot due to the Harry & Izzy’s outing that will live in infamy include some of the biggest names in their profession. The list, per Goodman: Ted Valentine, John Higgins, Roger Ayers, John Gaffney, Kipp Kissinger and Ray Natili. That’s a big hit.

All are accomplished veterans who have worked deep into many NCAA tournaments. For my money, Ayers is the best official in the college game today. For as much criticism as Valentine and Higgins have taken, they are at the highest echelon of the sport. Cue the jokes about “TV Teddy” having to watch the tourney on TV, but this is a problem.

When this tourney winds its way into the cauldron of the Sweet 16, Elite Eight and Final Four, they will be missed. To paraphrase Col. Nathan Jessup, You want me on that block-charge call. You need me on that block-charge call.

That’s because the top officiating echelon is not terribly deep, especially since many of the good ones keep retiring to become supervisors of officials for conference consortiums. The loss last spring of Mike Eades, who retired to work for the SEC and other leagues, is particularly acute—especially in light of the news this week. Eades, Ayers, Higgins and Valentine have worked a ton of Final Fours and would be top candidates to be among the nine chosen to do so this year.

Gavitt did what he had to do on the call, expressing confidence in the remaining 54 officials and the four who have been added since the loss of the Steak Dinner Six. He noted that NCAA coordinator of officials J.D. Collins and various conference offices identified 77 officials as top candidates for the tourney, which means 17 qualified refs didn’t get the initial call. And Gavitt pointed out that in a normal year, the NCAA will use 109 refs in the tournament.

“We’re still way within the number we use on an annual basis,” he said.

This is true, but there is a difference between quantity and quality. The loss of quality off the top is the concern.

If 10% of the coaches in the tourney were dismissed and that included some of the very best, we’d be looking at a Big Dance without Rick Pitino, Roy Williams, Jay Wright, Bill Self, Tony Bennett, Tom Izzo and Mark Few. You think that would matter? So will this.

“That’s a huge blow because of the enormous amount of experience in those types of games for this time of year,” says one coach with a Final Four on his résumé. “There are not enough good officials, no doubt about it. The quality of their judgement, experience, years in the spotlight is huge. I really wish they could figure out how to get them back in even on the second weekend.”

Adds another coach: “There is a BIG difference between the best guys and the next group, so this could definitely have an impact on two levels. One, flat-out getting calls right. Two, managing the game, especially on that stage.”

(Among the issues of game management that will be front and center this tournament: soul-sucking replay reviews, as refs try to balance the imperative to get calls right with being overly cautious and dragging out the end of close games to the point that they lose their drama. Less experienced officials are likely to lean even more heavily on the replay, so be prepared.)

Unfortunately, ripping the refs has become a national pastime. The amount of energy expended blaming the officiating for any given team’s loss—in any sport—is enough to power the grid of a large American city for months. Basketball might be at the top of the complaint list, and the NCAA tournament probably draws even more ref ripping than the NBA playoffs.

Fact: It’s a ridiculously difficult job, given the pace of play and athleticism of the participants. Also a fact: Incorrect calls directly affect the outcome of games relatively rarely. Ninety-nine percent of losses are attributable to one team simply being better than the other, or performing better on that given day. But it’s much easier to charge the third party involved with incompetence or corruption, especially if you can tie it to a ridiculous conspiracy theory about who the NCAA or CBS really wants to win.

The loss of the Steak Dinner Six will only add fuel to the fire—more for fans to question, and more pressure on the remaining refs. Hopefully this is a Next Zebra Up scenario in which the guys who work these 67 games all perform capably and professionally.

If they need some free advice, here it is: Not every collision is a charge; not every flailing shooter was really fouled; and not every raised elbow warrants two minutes at the monitor. Now let’s hope we have an NCAA tournament that isn’t rife with ref bashing, while six of the best are sitting at home because of a misguided night out in Indy.