The Problem with College Basketball Officiating

Let me start this off by saying I was once an official myself. Starting off working church leagues to make a few extra bucks in high school, I became certified in college and worked a handful of events before focusing more on the broadcasting side of the game. So I really have no ill will towards officials the way some of my other colleagues have. That being said, officiating basketball at the collegiate level is causing more problems than good.

I witnessed a game on Thursday night that featured 65 combined fouls and 86 free throws. The game took two and a half hours. There were 207 combined points scored, but it was a fool’s gold number since nearly half of them came at the free throw line and the game featured merely two significant stretches of offense not marred by whistles. The game was unwatchable and unenjoyable for most everyone involved. But this is not a piece claiming that the officials were awful and blew a bunch of calls. Because they did not.

Of course, they missed their fair share. There were an abundance of soft fouls called away from the hoop and a couple of questionable offensive charge calls (the effectiveness of the charge in basketball is another debate for another time). But for the most part, the calls all fell along the lines of the “points of emphasis” for college basketball officials this year. Which is all fine and dandy until you consider this was the first game in about a month and a half that I had seen those points actually emphasized in a game.

Sure, early season games saw a significant increase in the amount of fouls due to referees observing the new freedom of motion points in the game. In fact, ESPN’s Jay Bilas made waves during one particular early season tournament for repeatedly responding to frequent whistles by saying that players would eventually get used to the new style of play and adapt, which would then decrease the amount of fouls that needed to be called. Only that did not happen.

Here are the biggest rule changes for this season if you need a refresher (and most of us do.)

My broadcast partner, Artis Gilmore, said on the air Thursday night that changing rules was not so much the problem as holding officials accountable was. There was an officiating higher up in the house the other night observing the crew, who responded by calling the game much more along the lines of the way it had been established at the beginning of the year. The problem is, most officiating crews in college basketball have not consistently called games according to how they are supposed to for the majority of the season. So when the crackdowns on offensive freedom of movement occur in late January but neither team has played games with that enforced since November, it leads to 65 fouls.

That leads us to the main issue. The game of basketball is difficult to officiate, perhaps the hardest of all sports due to the size of the players, speed of the game and the tight quarters in which it is played (I know it is debatable which is the hardest, don’t @ me). So while it has become the norm for each season to feature a flurry of rule changes and points of emphasis for the referees to add to what they have already been taught to look for in the game, things generally revert back to the “old ways” by conference play and that is that. And perhaps that is the way it should be. Instead of giving officials more and more things to look for and enforce to try and “make the game better”, maybe they should focus on calling the main rules as good as they can (mostly block/charge calls, which are wrong 75% of the time). If, instead of piling more onto an already full plate, we just expected officials to hone their craft over the years, perhaps we would see a better bunch of them out there. Officials have a hard job, and giving them a bunch of new directives each year that they cannot remember until an official reviewer is in the house does not help them do their job any easier. In grade school, I learned the acronym KISS. Keep It Simple Stupid. The game of basketball is not broken, and I understand the thoughts to try and improve it. But it seems that most of these so called “improvements” are only hurting the game and taking away the playing style that makes it so unique and different than the NBA. So my final cry is, “NCAA! Leave well enough alone!”