Forgive college basketball referees for compulsively checking their email inboxes in the hours leading up to dinner two days before Selection Sunday. That’s when John Adams, the NCAA’s national coordinator of men’s basketball officiating, annually notifies 100 officials that they have been chosen to work in the NCAA Tournament.
The evaluation process begins several months before that notification. Adams asks the 31 automatic-qualifier conferences for a list of names of officials likely to work conference tournaments. (The Ivy League is asked for a list of officials that likely would be used if the conference had a postseason tournament).
Adams and four regional advisers start with that list of about 500 and make sure that every one of them is evaluated in person by at least one of the five evaluators. After evaluated, the 500 names are placed into one of two groups: 1. Consider for the NCAA Tournament; 2. Don’t consider for the NCAA Tournament. The first group has about 200 names.
“We have a provision where each one of our 31 automatic qualifying leagues provide us with nominations in order of the officials that they manage throughout the season,” Adams told the Journal-World in an interview last month in the NCAA offices in Indianapolis. “We’re obligated to take at least one official off each one of the nomination lists from the 31 automatic qualifying leagues. Then we’ll look at the nominations and see where those lines cross between who we think is good enough to work the tournament and who the leagues think are the best guys.”
Adams said the first game that a first-time official from a less competitive league works is chosen carefully.
“The first time in, you probably don’t want him in an 8/9 game. You might want him in a 16/1, 15/2 game,” he said, then quickly defended their credentials. “They’re very capable. We’ve done background checks. We watched them in a game.”
Twelve officials are sent to each of the eight sub-regional sites, including Kansas City, Mo. Seven are pre-assigned to work the second day at each site, with three working each game and an alternate staying in case of an injury or emergency that precludes someone from working a game.
Before making those assignments final, Adams said he studies the brackets for a couple of hours.
“Now that I know the teams, now that I know the match-ups, are there conflicts? Do I have too many guys from the West Coast, and there are four West Coast teams? So let’s say I can’t get neutrality,” Adams said. “If I can’t get a neutral group, let’s say Kansas is playing Georgetown, I may want a guy who is particularly identified with the Big 12, a guy who is particularly identified with the Big East and a guy from the Southland, so that nobody’s griping, ‘Well, they know him better than we know him.’ That’s the bit of art work that goes into it.”
The evaluation process continues as the tournament field shrinks. The top 40 officials (including four alternates) make the cut and advance to the regional sites.
“We analyze all the evaluations,” Adams said. “We’re evaluating every official at every game throughout.”
Sunday night, the 40 officials who advance are informed. Is the cut based on the entire season or strictly on tournament performance?
“I’d say it’s probably weighted a little more on how they do in the tournament, but much like the (basketball tournament) selection committee relies on a body of work, so do we,” Adams said.
Next, on the Monday one week before the NCAA title game, five days before the national semifinals, Adams has the pleasure of making nine memorable phone calls.
“I call them personally and tell them, effectively, ‘You made the show.’ And I listen to them yell and cheer and scream’ and some of them cry,” Adams said. “It’s a pretty emotional phone call for both of us because it’s the culmination of these guys’ dreams to work the Final Four.”
The Final Four refs’ names are made public later that day.
Contrary to popular opinion, coaches are not allowed to make their own personal referee blacklists, according to Adams.
“As a matter of fact, if we were to uncover a blacklist process from one of the automatic qualifying leagues, I think our bylaws are such that we wouldn’t give them any share of tournament revenue,” Adams said.
That doesn’t mean those responsible for assigning officials throughout the country during the course of the college basketball season or in the tournament ignore history between coaches and referees.
“As you put together the crews for the games, if Bill Self had gotten in a physical, knock-down drag-out fight with a referee and might have had one bad night on the same night Bill had one bad night and we still wanted him in the tournament — although that would be unlikely that two guys were rolling around on the floor — that would probably not be a referee we would want in a Kansas game,” Adams said.
Remember, the interview took place before Self’s prolonged, passionate reaction to Ben McLemore getting tagged with a technical foul by referee John Higgins against Iowa State in the Big 12 tournament, so Adams wasn’t making a veiled reference to that. Still, it will be interesting to see whether Higgins works any Kansas games.
“As the tournament narrows down and the best guys keep rising, sometimes conflicts become unavoidable,” Adams said, again speaking in general terms.