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What's wrong with the officiating?

College basketball officials are doing a terrible job this year. Why is that and, more importantly, can it be fixed?

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Giving the people what they want, more time to look at the refs.
Giving the people what they want, more time to look at the refs.
Chris Gardner-USA TODAY Sports

It's no secret that college basketball has a serious officiating problem. For Xavier fans, who probably didn't need the point made, the clown show that happened when a crew of Roger Ayers, Joe Lindsay, and Doug Shows ruined an otherwise gripping game at MSG. The Remy Abell call aside, it was Ayers, Shows, and Lindsay who decided to take center stage by calling 27 fouls in the second half after players adjusted to an equally poor reffing pattern that saw only three fouls called in the first. There's no question that the officiating is getting worse and worse, but why?

First, any case that's being made needs to be backed with evidence. It's not possible to compile an internet's worth of rage into a single article, but the amount of very legitimate bad call complaints can be represented. It could be Sam Thompson going over his own player's backTrey Burke's amazing blockthe out of bounds call that wasn'tJordan Dickerson getting called for being pulled downKarl Hess throwing out fansthis debatable one on Nick Johnsonor awarding a dead ball technical on a box outeven the awful Dan Dakich knows it's bad.

Obviously, that list could go on ad infinitum for anyone willing to dredge the internet for terrible calls. It's also worth noting that officials cannot be perfect when some of the best athletes in the world are running past them 70 times in a 40 minute game. The difference between a block and charge, besides being something most announcers don't know, is often minuscule. That doesn't excuse referees who are simply bad at their jobs, but it does help cast the occasional bad call in a more understandable light.

More oversight with teeth

John Adams is the man in charge of oversight for the NCAA. He helps select and evaluate officials for the national tournament, coordinate training, and determine the points of emphasis. He has absolutely no way of weeding out bad officials.  For the Big East, John Cahill fills that role. What is notable is that officials who make bad calls very, very rarely face any discipline. There are around 1000 officials theoretically available for each basketball game. When you factor in there being three on court officials for each game (not to mention a fourth on the sideline) the simple fact becomes that there aren't that many choices for each game.

Coordinators have chosen not to offend the officials they do have by essentially giving them carte blanche to ref however they see fit. Fines, demotions, or censure are utterly unheard of. Bear in mind that the crew working the infamous Crosstown Shootout fight did nothing to keep the game from growing progressively more overheated until the fight was very nearly inevitable. After the game, their supervisor said they "did an excellent job trying to prevent the escalation." Failure to take action on even the most obvious of cases gives officials very little impetus to get any better. Without oversight and punishment, bad calls are just another way of passing time until the check comes.

Absurd work schedules

How much do you work at your normal job? 40 hours? That's the standard work week in America and, for most people the commute is about 25 minutes. Add in an extra job like say, writing for a college basketball site, and you might get another 10 hours or so of work per week. For most of those, you are supervised, possibly at a desk, not being screamed at, not under constant and unceasing stress, and hopefully well rested. Consider for a moment the itinerary of the crew that worked Xavier's last game.

The night previous to that game, Ayers was in Virginia doing his 80th game, Lindsay was in Missouri doing his 60th, and Shows was travelling in from Louisiana, where he had just done his 62nd game. That made three straight nights with a game for both Ayers and Lindsay, who had combined to travel 2,126 miles over that time. Add in Shows 1,360 mile jaunt from Baton Rouge, and you get three refs doing eight games over the three days and traveling 3,486 miles to do so.

If that sounds crazy, it's just the tip of the iceberg. While Ayers is near the top in games officiated, Lindsay and Shows aren't even the top 30. 18 referees this year have already done 70 or more games. That means in 103 and three days since the very first college tip off, some officials have had barely 20 days off. Again, that assumes that officials started on the very first day of the season. This would be a rough work schedule even if you worked from home. Instead, more than 60 officials have called games in 15 or more states. Atrocious travel, limited days off, and constant stress lead to bad decisions. A constant repetition of those three factors leads to more and more missed calls.

Obvious bias

Don't worry, this isn't about to go off the rails. College basketball officials are often accused of home cooking. That's not just the imagination of ranting traveling fans, it's well-established fact. The authors of Scorecasting very easily showed that an aggregation of calls benefits the home team almost without fail. This isn't any different in college basketball, where the average official who works at least 50 games per year favors the home team by about two calls per game.

That is obviously, not a small margin, but does it matter? Well, in one or two point games the chances for the away team to shoot free throws could make all the difference. Assume that those six fouls are spread evenly across the game, you can generally assume that one or two would either not send the home team to the line or would send the away team, based on the bonus. College basketball seasons are not long enough a sample to even themselves out, so teams suffer.

Take, as an example close to home, Xavier. The Musketeers have no had a home win that was decided by one or two points this year. They have, however, lost by one on the road in double overtime to Auburn and lost by one on the road to St. John's. Would two extra free throws have made the difference in either game? It's hard to say, but it's beyond a shadow of a doubt that Coach Mack and Xavier would have loved to have the chance. Instead, even the average official has taken that away. That's not adjusting for guys like Brent Meaux (who calls 5.4 fouls per game fewer on the home team) or the 22 other officials who average over a three call advantage for the home team.

Fixing it

So, what to do? Obviously, oversight is needed. With video at every Division I game, the system is in place if referee coordinators wanted to make sure there charges were actually doing a good job. Taking a bite out of the $3,000 or more that officials earn for a power five game (or dropping them from a scheduling rotation) would send a quick message to refs who blow the most obvious or damaging calls.

Secondly, officials need to be placed in sectors. Schedule referees within a set number of square miles from their home early. Conference allegiances make no sense when Creighton and St. John's are 1,250 miles apart. Keep Midwestern refs close to home in the Midwest, and their coastal, northern, and southern counterparts closer to their homes. Eliminating the need to hop six or seven states to do back to back games can only help. Until then, prepare yourself for more games decided by calls that are obviously wrong.