Referee Madness: How NCAA tournament refs advance to the next round

In 2011, Jeffrey Anderson stood on the court at the Cintas Center in Cincinnati and breathed a sigh of relief.

Toward the end of a Crosstown Shootout matchup between rivals Cincinnati and Xavier, the action had not erupted into chaos the way Anderson — a young referee at the time — had anticipated. He was proud.

Seconds later, everything changed. Punches were thrown following a late air ball, and Anderson sprinted into a scrum as players from both teams spilled onto the floor. The scuffle forced officials to end the game early.

Anderson had relaxed too soon.

“It’s freaking 12 seconds to go in the game,” Anderson, a longtime college basketball official, told ESPN. “Then, all hell broke loose.”

But according to Anderson, those tense moments early in his career proved to those above him that he could handle the heat, which led to better assignments. He still remembers bouncing the basketball at the free throw line at Madison Square Garden in the semifinals of his first Big East tournament. He looked up at the crowd and knew he had made it.

“I was very fortunate,” said Anderson, who officiated Texas A&M’s 98-83 win over Nebraska in the first round of the NCAA tournament in Memphis on Friday. “I went up the ladder kind of quick.”

Every March, college basketball officials know their jobs will earn a higher level of scrutiny from everyone: players, coaches, fans, reporters and their own bosses and league executives. Only the best officials in the pool are allowed to officiate these games. And if they’re good in the first round, they can advance to the second and so on to the Final Four, when the NCAA picks the top crew.

Survive and advance? That’s the reality for 109 officials in the NCAA tournament, who share many of the physical and emotional trials, challenges and triumphs as the players and coaches involved.

John Higgins is always looking for the next budding star. With a pen in hand, he takes notes as he watches officials in action. He looks at their efficiency and consistency. He analyzes their communication skills. He keeps an eye on their athleticism — if someone is agile and quick, Higgins knows they can get to the right spot on the court in a hectic game. Some skills can’t be taught.

Higgins is the coordinator of officials for the Western Basketball Officiating Consortium, managing what amounts to a combine or draft process for basketball officials. At offseason camps operated by collegiate officials and coordinators around the country — including the NCAA’s own college basketball referee academy — Higgins and his colleagues scout young Division II and III referees who hope to get the call up to Division I.

“You’ve got to have command of the game, good judgment and knowledge of the rules,” Higgins told ESPN. “You also have to look the part. We talk about LeBron James and Michael Jordan — I can watch [refs] and see if they have the ‘it factor.’

“You can see when guys are just out there blowing the whistle and don’t have that command and confidence.”

There is only one way to know whether an official can go from the simulated experience of a camp to the real thing, which might include a nose-to-nose encounter with an angered coach or a confrontation with a heated player. Just last month, Clemson’s Joseph Girard III charged an official and had to be held back after a no-call at the end of his team’s loss at Duke.

“You’re not going to throw ’em into Duke vs. North Carolina in their first year,” Chris Rastatter, the NCAA’s coordinator of officials in men’s basketball, told ESPN. “I’ll see a particular matchup, and I’ll see a young referee that I think has some NCAA tournament potential, and I’ll go, ‘Oh, here’s a good matchup for that ref. We’ll see how they handle it.’ But you don’t know. When the bright lights come on, you see who handled it. Almost everybody does.”

Early in his career, Olandis Poole hoped to prove he could handle that pressure.

He attended multiple referee camps, which often also feature non-Division I and high school refs hoping to catch a break. The key to getting in was straightforward — find a mentor who could vouch for you at those camps. The challenge from there was making the right calls.

“That process was an every summer occurrence,” said Poole, who has officiated in the NBA and college for more than 20 years. “I was just trying to get seen, trying to get observed.”

Jason Baker, an SEC official, said he attended over 125 camps, beginning when he was 17, to work his way to the top. He’d grab every assignment he could until, much like NCAA teams on Selection Sunday, he got tapped to officiate at the Division I level.

“I reffed high school after I graduated from college, then worked [junior college] games,” Baker said. “I got hired in Division I basketball in 1999. And I kept working my way up.”

“It’s a long road,” collegiate official Joe Lindsay said.

Anderson has earned the nickname “high knees” because of the way he sprints down the floor during games. An X parody account named after him has nearly 15,000 followers.

“I have a little back problem,” Anderson told ESPN about his running style. “My chiropractor suggested that because of how my back was, I should [stand up straight] and bring my knees up as high as I possibly can to take pressure off my back.”

Anderson’s “high knees” popularity is an outlier, though, as reactions toward officials are often far from lighthearted.

Lindsay is the second of three generations of referees in his family. He idolized his father so much that he dressed like a referee for Halloween as a kid multiple times. With his son having entered the family business, Lindsay admits he’s worried.

At a game in South Carolina last month, frustrated fans yelled Lindsay’s name from the stands and expressed their dismay at some of his calls.

“They used to say you could tell a good referee when you didn’t know his name,” Lindsay told ESPN. “Hey, ‘I don’t know your name and I didn’t know you refereed that game.’ That was the biggest compliment ever.”

That’s rare today. There are many ways to search for details about an official, which is why Rastatter advises officials to stay off social media and never announce their locations or schedules. It’s too dangerous in today’s climate, he said.

“We don’t share details,” Rastatter said. “You just don’t.”

The legalization and expansion of sports betting has also elevated the demand for privacy among officials. Rastatter advises his officials to not have conversations off the court about games and risk inadvertently revealing information that could impact the betting line.

“We always talk about gambling and just having awareness, because you could be having a casual conversation with somebody and all they’re trying to do is get some information out of you,” he said. “We are on alert. I don’t tell people where I’m going, who I’m reffing. I don’t talk about players, the game, I don’t talk about any of that.”

Higgins said the uptick in sports betting has also led to more analysis of officials from watchdog companies, such as U.S. Integrity — the same group that flagged “suspicious” betting activity before a Temple game this month. The school has launched an investigation.

“If you did bet, you’d be fired in a second,” Higgins said. “There is U.S. Integrity that looks into the point spread to see if there are trends or [people] putting a lot of money on one game, and then they look at all of the referees. That’s the background part of it they do. So there is a big, big push to watch referees.”

Refs can also be subject to disciplinary action when they make mistakes, per the officials who spoke to ESPN. Earlier this month, an official in a West Coast tournament missed a critical call that could have decided the outcome of a game, Higgins said. That official lost a future assignment for that conference tournament as discipline. With the healthy pipeline of talent that has developed for officials, Rastatter said, every ref knows they can be replaced.

“If they’re not cutting it,” Rastatter said, “there are plenty of other people who can get the job done.”

Hours after the NCAA tournament began, a controversial call became one of its top storylines.

With his team ahead 90-89 in the final seconds of a first-round game on Thursday, Kansas guard Nicolas Timberlake raced down the court for a layup as Samford’s A.J. Staton-McCray swiped the ball from his hands. To many, it appeared to be a clean block.

A foul, however, was called. Timberlake went to the charity stripe and hit a pair of free throws to extend KU’s lead, sealing a 93-89 victory for the Jayhawks.

After the game, Timberlake said he was “definitely” fouled, but Samford coach Bucky McMillan wasn’t so sure.

“I have seen the play,” McMillan said after the game. “I thought [Staton-McCray] made an incredible play on it, you know what I’m saying? I’m not faulting the call. Some people can see it [in] different ways.”

While fans online continue to debate the validity of that call and others in the tournament’s opening weekend, the officials in the field know they’re accountable to a higher officiating power. And if they fell short of the standard, they can only hope to get another chance to prove themselves in the next round.

If they don’t get that opportunity, just like the players and coaches they govern on the court, they’ll have the entire offseason to think about what went wrong.

“I know I’ve missed calls down the stretch of a game,” Rastatter said. “Let’s face it: [Those calls] have some influence on the outcome. And those are hard to swallow. It’s a tough deal to live with that.

“Now, you got to flush it and get on to the next one.”

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