clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Understanding the Referee: What Can the Big Ten do to Improve College Basketball?

Looking at the other side of Fransplosions to see if there is a bigger issue at play

NCAA Basketball: Ohio State at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Like many of you, I was more than upset about the refereeing of the Iowa Hawkeyes game at Maryland on Sunday. For too long, I felt consumed by it. I remain all in on Fran McCaffery, so seeing him blow up was actually a plus for me. It was, after all, his first expulsion in about 4 years, and only his second and third technical fouls of the season. Though you wouldn’t tell by the high horse national media.

Beyond all the hand-wringing about Fran McCaffery, something continued to stick in terms of the other parties complicit in that turn of events: the referees. So, I went to their KenPom pages to better understand what in the world life as an NCAA referee is like.

As Stoops mentions again and again - with good reason - that these guys are independent contractors. Like an Uber driver, it is in their best interest to work as much as possible and not necessarily as good as possible.

Bo Boroski ($), Donnie Eppley ($), and Robert Riley ($) are all highly rated refs this by KenPom, insomuch as you can “rate” refs:

Referees in Iowa vs. Maryland, 1/7

Referee 2018 Games 2018 Rating 2017 Games 2017 Rating 2016 Games 2016 Rating/Rank
Referee 2018 Games 2018 Rating 2017 Games 2017 Rating 2016 Games 2016 Rating/Rank
Bo Boroski 41 27.84 (22) 87 59.24 (11) 90 52.23 (22)
Donnie Eppley 45 26.70 (27) 93 48.44 (47) 84 37.72 (84)
Robert Riley 38 26.20 (31) 95 48.17 (50) 81 43.66 (60)
His algorithm basically determines if the ref is in a good game. Good refs are more likely to get good games

38, 41, and 45 games in 58 days doesn’t seem so wild until the math is done on their specific schedules: Boroski and Riley are riding streaks of 10 games in 11 days while Eppley has reffed nine straight days. NINE!

In the following context, it’s actually a pretty impressive road trip he’s built. He’s not zig-zagging and his games are all relatively close, outside of the Columbus, OH-Albany, NY layover.

Donnie Eppley, 9 games in 9 days

But it shouldn’t come to that. Nor should it come to this:

Bo Boroski, 10 games in 11 days

Or this!

Robert Riley, 10 games in 11 days

To be clear, this isn’t to put any of these guys on blast for trying to make a dollar. It’s the economy in which they’re working and they’re making the most of it. They’re not alone, either.

Through 1/7, 30 refs have called more than 38 games.

So, what can be done?

There is, to my knowledge*, only one league which uses full-time employees as referees: The NBA. Their roster has 64 full-time officials, which means 16 4-person teams when you include an alternate with each on-court team of three. Doing the math backwards, with 1280 regular season NBA games, that means the average official does 80 games over 5 months, a number many college officials will eclipse in four-ish months.

This says nothing of the fact that the NBA does not have many teams where a connecting flight is required, like an NCAA official.

Some semblance of a full-time crew is required on at least a conference basis, especially as the Big Ten moves to 20 conference games next year, or 140 total games. If the conference season allows for a couple byes next year, I’d expect the conference season to take 11 weeks (13ish games a week).

If the Big Ten wanted to hire a roster of exclusive referees, it could make do with about 8 and still provide two days off per week. Plus, you can always dip your feet into the contractor pool, specifically for alternates, if necessary. All companies do.

Take the last week, for example:

Referee Schedule Example

1-Jan 2-Jan 3-Jan 4-Jan 5-Jan 6-Jan 7-Jan
1-Jan 2-Jan 3-Jan 4-Jan 5-Jan 6-Jan 7-Jan
N/A A, B, 1, (2) A, B, C, (1) G, H, A, (1) E, F, G (1) C, D, E, (1) C, D, E, (1)
N/A C, D, 3, (4) D, E, F, (2) B, C, D, (2) H, A, B (2) F, G, H, (2) F, G, H, (2)
N/A E, F, 5, (6) N/A N/A N/A A, B, 3, (4) N/A
N/A G, H, 7, (8) N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A
All None G, H E, F C, D None A, B
Letters denote specific exclusive referees; numbers denote nonspecific contract referees

In each game, at least two exclusive refs are used, while contractors are leaned on heavily, especially as alternates which are in parentheses. And each resource gets two days off.

Since money is no real constraint and the logistics aren’t too difficult to sort it, this leads me to what the real issue is: accountability.

I’m not going to sit here and moan that Fran’s ejection, or even Tyler Cook’s, meant the difference against Maryland. That’s rarely the case in 20-point games. But it did highlight another issue.

Now, I understand the Big Ten does not want to turn referees into postgame stories any more than necessary but in situations like this, a couple questions are certainly fair. Basically a confirmation of what we know as much as anything, in this situation. With Maryland beat reporters totally fine filing their gamers in an on-its-face blowout win, they have no dog in the fight. “Sorry, not sorry.”

Yet, at the end of the day it is not hard to release a statement backing up the refs assigned to the game. If the Big Ten had more stake in the referees, like they do in football where refs are employed by conferences (though still as contractors), they might feel differently about their perception.

While Sunday’s outcome was not affected by the actions of the refs, it made me curious to look at it from the refs’ points of view to see what they go through. Though the airline miles and hotel points are a sick perk, there are things which can be done to stabilize the life of refs. By restricting the number of games they officiate, refining the roster, and being more accountable, Big Ten basketball can make some steps towards improving the on court product.

*my knowledge had a brain fart, as commenter ncthawk noted MLB umpires are also full-time. and NHL.