The Double Bonus: The Talking Cure

As usual, Tim in black and John in red.

In the aftermath of Bob Huggins’ ejection Monday night against Connecticut, ESPN’s Andy Katz raised an interesting question: Why do NCAA officials talk so often with coaches?

Conversations between coaches and officials are much more prevalent in basketball than in pretty much any other major team sport. I postulate that this derived from the positioning of officials on a basketball court; the official on the outside of the three-point line usually finds himself right next to the coach. The frequent stoppages of play, during timeouts and even more so, free throws, give coaches plenty of time to yap with refs.

As such, it’s now a common sight at a college basketball game to see a coach like Huggins or Jim Boeheim or Mike Krzyzewski carrying on a conversation during free throws with refs like John Cahill, Jim Burr, and Karl Hess. In fact, it’s pretty much a go-to shot during the broadcast of a game. Kyle Singler’s called for a block, show replay, have announcers discuss call, Davis misses first free throw, show Krzyzewski talking it over with Hess. We see this several times each game. The announcers even explicitly refer to it as “working the officials.”

In what other sport is this acceptable? Managers in baseball come out to talk about a call with an umpire once every few games—and they’re usually out there for a legitimate reason. There’s not an ongoing conversation about how balls and strikes are being called all game, unless Bobby Cox is involved. They’re not “working the umps.” Same goes for football, where coaches are rarely granted the chance to talk with the referee during the course of the game.*

*Which is why most coaches adopt the “Chase after him at the end of the game” approach.

Now, I want to be clear that college basketball does not come close to the officiating crisis in the NBA, where the officials are either crooked or incompetent (and it’s probably some combination). NCAA refs don’t develop the same kind of relationships with individual players that their NBA counterparts do, and this is a good thing. It’s also not as bad as college football, where all officials are affiliated with conferences, and it’s not unreasonable to wonder if they have what’s best for that conference in mind (i.e. a BCS title team) during a game.

The shoes really complete the look.

The issue in college basketball, however, is what Katz rightfully calls the “old-boy network” between coaches and refs. There isn’t a whole lot of upheaval among officials in college basketball, and while they aren’t affiliated with conferences, they are with regions. Combine this with the fact that coaches stay with one team—and even when they move, sometimes stay within the same geographic region—for decades, and you allow coaches and refs to build long relationships. For instance, the aforementioned Karl Hess has called 90 games involving Duke since 1996. You think he doesn’t have a stronger relationship with Mike Krzyzewski than he does with, say, Tony Bennett at Virginia? The same happens in the Big East with coaches like Boeheim and Calhoun around for a quarter-century or more alongside refs like Jim Burr and Tim Higgins. Both those guys have presided over 70 games involving Syracuse and Connecticut—and that’s only since 1996.

Of course, there’s a big jump from “Refs see these coaches a lot” to “Refs favor these coaches.” But I want to say two things on the matter. First, a ref that has interacted with a coach for decades will likely be more lenient and more explanatory with him than he will with a coach he’s never talked to before. Thus, Calhoun can get away with something a younger coach in the Big East—say, Marquette’s Buzz Williams—can’t, because the ref knows That’s Jim being Jim. Second, what can be gained by frequent conversations between refs and coaches? At the very least, it foments the perception that officials favor one side or the other. I just don’t see why it’s allowed so much in the college game.

Ideally, you’re probably right: Allowing coaches and refs to talk so much and appear to act buddy-buddy at the very least hurts the impression of impartiality and possibly does impair the neutrality of refs. But how could you reasonably stop it? You point out how the positioning of the refs makes ignoring what a coach says all but impossible. Should the NCAA prohibit ALL talking between the two sides? That seems Draconian and counterproductive. It’s not like they can impose some kind of word-limit. Maybe the best thing the NCAA can do is issue general warnings to refs about limiting discussions and hope they police themselves.

As Bob Huggins said about this issue, “There’s nothing wrong with communication.” And I do think his point is valid, if somewhat self-serving. What is wrong with a coach getting a particular call clarified or explained? He can then relay to players what their mistake was: “You moved your feet”/”He had position”/etc. I don’t think there is anything wrong with this. After all, baseball players often ask umps about how close a pitch’s location was or where it missed the strike zone; football coaches do have penalty calls clarified. There is more talking in basketball because of the positioning, but also because the game is much more fluid and calls are therefore more complex.

It’s true that extensive talking is going to lead to relationships and possibly create bias, but that’s true no matter what, in all sports. Refs call fouls differently on Shaq than they do on Zydrunas Ilgauskus. Umps call balls-and-strikes differently on Albert Pujols than they do on Ryan Ludwick. So they are probably going to treat Coach K differently than they’ll treat Tony Bennett. This is an unpleasant but inevitable truth.

I would also say that more bias comes from reputation than relationships. Calhoun, Boeheim, and Coach K are probably treated differently because they are HOFers who have been around forever more often than because a ref has called a lot of their games before. Refs are probably slightly more hesitant to throw one of them out of a game of give him a technical than they are to Dino Gaudio or Mike Brey.

Overall, though, I don’t think the problem is all that extensive or prevalent. The impact of bad officiating on games is much more prevalent and important than the impact of biased officiating. And while extensive talking may lead to overly intimate relationships between coaches and refs, it also forces to the refs to be accountable. And accountability is, on the whole, a good thing.

I don’t know about you, John, but I don’t plan on leaving the couch for much time on Saturday, which boasts easily the best slate of games of any day so far this year. The headliner is obviously Syracuse and Villanova at the Carrier Dome, but other standout matchups include Michigan State-Purdue, Kentucky-Tennessee, Maryland-Virginia Tech, and New Mexico-BYU. That last battle in Provo might interest me the most just because I haven’t really seen either team too much this year (Cougars once, Lobos none).

I guess someone is going to miss the release of Cop Out this weekend. And I’ll really be pulling for Tennessee over Kentucky.

By the way, I’ve got all the home teams except the Boilermakers. I had the Spartans winning that game even before the Robbie Hummel injury, which could be devastating to Purdue’s chances down the stretch. Let’s be blunt: Without Robbie Hummel, Purdue goes from a potential 1-seed and Final Four contender to a team that will struggle to get out of the first weekend. The injury looked serious enough to where the best-case scenario might be just to have Hummel back for the NCAA Tourney with the Boilermakers as a 2- or 3-seed depending on how they finish.

Yeah, this has shades of the Kenyon Martin injury for Cincinnati in 2000. It’ll be interesting to see how it affects their seeding, particularly if they somehow manage to win the Big Ten Tournament without Hummel. Do they still get a 1-seed over Duke if they each have 4 losses and a conference title?

The status of Robbie Hummel poses a lot of questions down the stretch of the season.

Well, if Purdue manages to win the Big Ten title with or without Hummel, it’s probably a 1-seed. It becomes interesting when you consider how far the Boilermakers can fall. They luck out a little with their schedule after the tilt with Michigan State on Saturday (even without Hummel, I’d expect them to beat Indiana and Penn State, and the best team they can run into in the Big Ten quarters is Minnesota, who they beat without him last night on the road). So let’s say they lose to Michigan State and then in the Big Ten semis to Wisconsin or Ohio State, and word comes down that Hummel can’t play in the NCAA Tournament. They’re certainly not a 1-seed, then, right? Would they even claim a 2?

The rule of thumb is you seed the team that’s going to play in the Tournament. In that case, though, that 2000 Cincinnati team with Kenyon Martin should have dropped well below the 2-line even after being the No. 1 team most of the season.

I actually had a brief Twitter exchange with Jerry Palm of CollegeRPI.com about that very comparison. Palm said he thought Hummel was as valuable to Purdue as Martin was to Cincinnati that season, which I patently disagreed with. Martin was the primary offensive option and a defensive force for the top-ranked Bearcats, and he rightfully earned National Player of the Year honors. Now, Hummel is as important as any other player on Purdue; as Palm pointed out, he, E’Twaun Moore, and JaJuan Johnson form a nice scoring triumvirate for the Boilermakers that becomes a lot less versatile without him. At the same time, having two quasi-go-to guys left in Moore and Johnson meant Purdue could come back and win at Minnesota even after Hummel got hurt (great win, btw). Meanwhile, Cincinnati went from beating St. Louis by 43 in the final game of the regular season to losing to the Billikens by 10 in their next game when Martin got hurt.

In my opinion, there’s no question Martin was more significant to his team, and that was borne out by Cincy’s seed that year and their second-round dismissal at the hands of Bill Self and Tulsa.

Only in the Big Ten can you start 0-12 and then win back-to-back conference games…on the road. Penn State, everybody!

You Know How I Know the Pac-10 Sucks? I had never heard of its leading scorer—Landry Fields—until I researched who its leading scorer was.

UNC has really lost its identity this season, even going so far as to entirely ditch “Carolina” blue for a game with silver uniforms last night against Florida State. The unis were supposedly to celebrate the Air Jordan brand. And before you think “That’s ridiculous,” realize that California and Georgetown also plan on donning silver for this cause. Because the only thing dumber than a school honoring a shoe is three schools honoring a shoe. (And why Cal and Georgetown? Isn’t Georgetown kind of anti-Jordan?)

Obviously Cal did it because Cal hates Stanford, whose coach is former Duke star and assistant coach Johnny Dawkins, so they ally themselves with North Carolina. And Georgetown did it because Jeff Green is currently a teammate of Kevin Durant, who was passed on by the Portland Trail Blazers for an injury-plagued big man, as was Michael Jordan. The connections are quite obvious.

The sky has been an unusual shade of Carolina gray this year.

P.S. The uniforms looked terrible and Carolina lost. Can you believe Duke only beat that team by 10?

Last night, Temple led Dayton, 19-13, at halftime. Now if you’re thinking, “When have I heard that before?” well, you’ve got a good memory, because earlier this season, Temple trailed Georgetown at the half, 19-13. And the Owls are probably a protected seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Aren’t you excited for a potential Temple-Georgetown rematch in an Elite Eight game?

The NCAA Vault is the greatest website ever. And I mean ever. It’s amazing I took enough time off to write all this when this site was available.

We’ve already made the point that the bubble was pretty thin to begin with this season, and it’s only gotten smaller now that a lot of bubble teams are losing games they can’t afford to lose (see: South Florida, Mississippi, Cincinnati, and Louisville). That’s why you have to give a lot of credit to both UConn (for going out and winning a big game against a top-10 team in West Virginia) and Marquette (for surviving two games on the road in overtime in the Big East against fellow bubbler Cincinnati and bubble-burster St. John’s). The Huskies look like they may be a very dangerous team come March while the Golden Eagles have started to win all the close games they were losing early in Big East play.

It’ll really be a shame if UConn’s late surge means they end up knocking out USF or Cincinnati. The Huskies underachieved all year, and then finally put it together down the stretch, while the Bulls finally competed in a conference nobody thought they could compete in.

Game(s) of the Week: I already mentioned a bunch above, but non-Saturday games worth a perusal include Richmond-Xavier on Sunday and Duke’s trip to College Park and a rematch with the Terrapins next Wednesday.

Upset of the Week: Doesn’t Tennessee beating Kentucky count? Guess not. So, I’ll take Utah taking down BYU in the hardwood Holy War on Wednesday.

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3 responses to this post.

  1. [...] wrote—albeit briefly—about my love of the NCAA Vault late last season. For the uninitiated, the NCAA Vault contains [...]

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  2. [...] wrote—albeit briefly—about my love of the NCAA Vault late last season. For the uninitiated, the NCAA Vault contains [...]

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  3. [...] wrote—albeit briefly—about my love of the NCAA Vault late last season. For the uninitiated, the NCAA Vault contains [...]

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