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The awkward officiating dance at the NCAA tournament

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San Diego State coach Steve Fisher nicknamed a Mountain West Conference referee Mr. Steps because the official frequently made traveling calls.

Fisher warns his players to expect to be called for three travels by Mr. Steps in the first five minutes of each game that he officiates. He even discourages his post players from dribbling near Mr. Steps.

"They laugh sometimes," Fisher said, "when the first travel is called."

Fisher's anecdote illustrates the intimate relationship between college coaches and referees, especially during conference play. While referees are rarely discussed at length publicly, the habits and quirks of certain officials and horror stories about them are discussed endlessly in athletic departments across America.

One of the most overlooked aspects of NCAA tournament games is the awkward dance among referees, coaches and players.

"Those are hard games," Brigham Young coach Dave Rose said. "There's no relationship at all, and you're trying to get some kind of interaction. Some are good by nature. Others are like: 'I'm in the tournament here. My call is the right call, so leave me alone.' But those are real issues, and I don't know how you address them."

The 98 top officials selected for the NCAA tournament are randomly assigned, which often means an adjustment for coaches, players and the officials themselves. There is a chance that a coach will not know all three officials and that the officials themselves have not worked together.

And with seasons, coaching careers and millions of dollars at stake, a delicate process must be played out under intense pressure on college basketball's biggest stage.

"You have to quickly know what you can and can't do and adjust," Fisher said.

The NCAA coordinator of officiating, John Adams, who assigns referees for the tournament, lives by a simple mantra: "We don't ever want to be the story."

An officiating blunder darkened the Big East tournament when three referees missed two calls in the final seconds, including a St. John's player stepping out of bounds with 1.7 seconds remaining, and hurried off the court into endless video loops of highlight infamy.

Adams disagrees with the notion that coaches often do not know the officials in NCAA games, pointing out that most veteran coaches and officials have crossed paths at some point. Adams says when he assigns officials he would prefer either three officials working together for the first time, or if there is a game, say, between Michigan State and UCLA, that there is an official who worked in the Big Ten and one who worked in the Pac-10, so neither coach feels slighted.

Adams also said there was a strong push by the NCAA, through training and video study, to be sure that games are officiated the same way in the Big East as they are in the Big West, the ACC and everywhere in between.

"We're trying to make it more of a science and less of an art," he said. "We're constantly identifying reoccurring plays and saying, 'This is the way we're going to referee.' We're trying to make it more like calling balls and strikes."

The retired official Curtis Shaw, who worked the last of his seven Final Fours last year, said that a more uniform approach to refereeing has helped. He used an example of a team like Wisconsin, which plays a lumbering, physical style, perhaps being penalized if it had an official from the Southeastern Conference who was more accustomed to a free-flowing game and did not call fouls the Badgers typically drew.

"Teams got hurt in the NCAA tournament," Shaw said.

Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said the dynamics of NCAA tournament officiating can be distracting to coaches and players. Coaches are given the names of officials an hour before a game. An assistant for Brey would find out where they are from, and sometimes Brey would ask his assistants during a game, "What's his name again?"

Brey said he had coached NCAA tournament games in which his players would return to the huddle after an early timeout and say, "This is a little different."

"It needs to be addressed mentally by the head coach and verbally by the head coach to his team," Brey said. "You have to try and let it not be the distraction. I've fallen into the trap where it has been a distraction at times. It's different."

The Colonial Athletic Association commissioner, Tom Yeager, counters by saying that three officials unfamiliar to coaches and players is not a bad thing. He said high-profile coaches were always searching for an edge and did not like to leave their comfort zones.

"It's like knowing the home plate umpire is going to give you the outside corner," Yeager said.

Dick Cartmell will work his 20th NCAA tournament this year, and his decorated career includes five Final Fours and three national title games. The best compliment he can be paid may be that few people recall him refereeing those games. Cartmell officiates primarily in the Pac-10, but he said since he had been around so long he has worked with most of the top East Coast officials. He said when he was assigned to a game in which he did not know the coach, he made a point to introduce himself.

"Part of being a good official is good people skills," he said.

Cartmell said the key to officials who had never worked together was adjusting to one another in a pregame meeting. In it, Cartmell emphasized that if an official has a "closed view" of a potential call not to blow the whistle, as another official most likely has a better view. He said the officials do not do background checks, but discuss issues like whether a team plays zone or a full-court press, to figure out positioning.

"You hope that everything goes well and the team that deserves to win, wins," he said.

Shaw said many people do not realize how competitive the process is for a referee to officiate an NCAA tournament. Adams and a staff of four cross the country to scout officials at more than 400 games every year. They watch in person virtually the entire list of 350 officials under consideration for the tournament.

Along with prestige for the officials, there is financial reward. Adams said officials would make $1,000 a game in Rounds 1 through 3, $1,400 for the regionals and $2,000 each for the national semifinals and finals.

"The competition to move on with the referees is just as hard as the teams," Shaw said.

Shaw and Cartmell agreed the biggest recent change in officiating is the nationwide scrutiny through advanced technology and social networking.

"Scrutiny was there, but not nearly the magnitude of the last seven years with all the technology and bloggers and 400 different camera angles," Shaw said.

"It's a hard game to referee," he added. "Kids are big and fast and young and athletic."

Part of Adams' job is having to call and apologize. He called Mike Rice last year after a flurry of bad calls cost Robert Morris its first-round game with Villanova. He explained to Rice, now the Rutgers coach, the reason behind the referee assignment. None of those three officials refereed another NCAA game that year.

"I felt that we could have done better for both teams," Adams said.

When the ball is tipped across the country this week, an awkward dance will soon follow.