College basketball ref changes force coaches, fan adjustment

Duke head coach Jon Scheyer talks with official Roger Ayers during the second half of Kansas’ 69-64 victory over Duke in the State Farm Champions Classic in Indianapolis, Ind. Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2022.

Duke head coach Jon Scheyer talks with official Roger Ayers during the second half of Kansas’ 69-64 victory over Duke in the State Farm Champions Classic in Indianapolis, Ind. Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2022.

Amid everything else that happened Saturday night, North Carolina’s win over N.C. State was the kind of game where fans on both sides walked away complaining about the officiating. Wolfpack fans pointed to the Tar Heels’ 39 free-throw attempts, while the opposite side felt Leaky Black was unfairly ejected for his hard foul that sent Terquavion Smith crashing to the floor.

Twas ever thus, some longtime ACC fans would say. Replacing a former UNC quarterback and athletic director with an Illinois grad as ACC commissioner didn’t quell any of the conspiracy theories, and more than one visiting coach has grumbled that he didn’t get any more calls in Cameron even without Mike Krzyzewski on the opposite bench, at least in the second half.

Officials have worked under tremendous, frame-by-frame scrutiny in the DVR, social-media era, and that’s been true for years now — as has the fact that those same tools, applied by evaluators instead of fans, mean that college basketball officials are more technically accurate than they’ve ever been, statistically speaking.

Throw in the fact that three ACC officials are perennially among the 11 picked to officiate the Final Four — Roger Ayers, Ron Groover and Bert Smith — and it’s hard to argue that the ACC could have much more quality at the top of its officiating pool, even if there are valid questions about depth.

But it’s nevertheless a conversation that will never go away, in part because the nature of college basketball — and the coin-flip nature of so many calls, especially block-charge calls — puts officials in the position of deciding many games, and in a sport where a single win or loss can determine a bubble team’s NCAA fate. (The ACC has had too many of those lately.)

“In college basketball, officials have more influence on a win or loss and people’s careers and fortunes, whether that’s players or teams or coaches, than any other sport in the world,” Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner said. “That includes the NBA, football — in men’s college basketball, they have more influence on wins and losses. That doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with that, but because of the situation of what a call could mean here or a call could mean there, especially on those 50-50 calls.

“There’s a lot at stake in these games, and the officials have a lot of influence on that. Again, they’re human beings. Mistakes will be made, that’s just part of the deal. That’s just life. No one’s going to be perfect on that. We have a great group of officials, high-level guys.”

There’s also no question that group of officials has changed over the past seven years, since longtime ACC official Bryan Kersey retired and took over as the league’s supervisor of officials. Kersey and ACC basketball czar Paul Brazeau pursued new alliances and expanded old ones, with the Big East (as equals) and lower-level leagues like the Atlantic 10, Colonial and Big South, among others.

While officials are independent contractors, they have a primary affiliation to one league, committed to working that conference’s postseason tournament and giving that league first call on their schedule. The expanded alliances broadened the pool of veteran officials available to the league and streamlined some of their travel while giving the ACC more control of younger officials and creating new developmental paths for them.

At the same time, a longtime cohort of ACC stalwarts has left the court or aged out of the top level of the profession, including Final Four regulars like Kersey; the infamous Karl Hess; Jamie Luckie; Les Jones and Mike Eades, who became Kersey’s counterpart in the SEC. Brian Dorsey, Luckie and Jones are still working, but only rarely in the ACC now. (Ted Valentine, once exiled from the ACC, has been back for several years.)

Their replacements, brought up through the Colonial and A10, are still finding their footing at this level at times. Tommy Morrissey, who worked his first NCAA tournament game last spring and was in Chapel Hill on Saturday, made what may be the worst charge call in basketball history in December, when UNC’s Black brushed past a Pittsburgh defender. But some will eventually thrive and rise, just as Groover and Smith did only a few years ago.

“I do like what we’ve done out of the league office with a bit of a youth movement,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. “Some guys are coming in that are young and can really move and run. I think that had to happen. Just like there were coaches moving along, there were officials ready to move on.

“I kind of like what we’ve done. Anytime you have a bunch of young guys, there’s going to be a break-in period, there’s going to be some mistakes at times, but I think as coaches, you kind of understood there was going to be a changing of the guard rapidly with some of our officials that were moving on, and we needed youth.”

Other coaches noted how the tenor of their relationships with officials has changed over the years. Florida State’s Leonard Hamilton said that Kersey has brought in guys “who understand it’s an emotional game,” while Boston College’s Earl Grant may know some of the ACC’s younger officials better than some of his peers, having spent seven seasons in the Colonial with Charleston when they were coming up through the ranks.

“They have good nights and bad nights, just like our players. What you really want is consistency,” Grant said. “We’ve got some of the top-notch officials in all of college basketball. I don’t know if we can complain too much. I don’t know if we can find better officials from somewhere else.”

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Sports columnist Luke DeCock joined The News & Observer in 2000 and has covered six Final Fours, the Summer Olympics, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He is the current president of the U.S. Basketball Writers Association, was the 2020 winner of the National Headliner Award as the country’s top sports columnist and has twice been named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.

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