When former BYU baseball coach Mike Littlewood returned to officiating college basketball games in 2022, he had one goal in mind — get back to the Big Dance. The NCAA Tournament isn’t just where coaches and players want to be, it is also the granddaddy of them all for the men and women wearing the stripes.

“It’s the same. It’s the same thing,” Littlewood told the “Y’s Guys” podcast. “I’ve coached a lot of what I think were really big baseball games and had been to an NCAA regional, but on the officiating side, there is nothing that I’ve ever experienced in athletics that is as special as March Madness.”

When Littlewood took the floor to call the March 21 NCAA Tournament game between Iowa State and South Dakota State in Omaha, Nebraska, he closed a gap that had grown 12 years wide. His last tournament game as an official, just prior to taking the coaching job in 2012, was an Elite Eight matchup between Michigan State and Louisville.

As with this year’s field of 68 tournament teams, including BYU, Littlewood had to qualify to get back there.

Earning your way in

The NCAA Tournament hires 100 referees from a nationwide pool of 500 to work the Big Dance. Each one is highly scrutinized throughout the season.

“We are evaluated every single game, including every single play by two or three different people,” Littlewood said. “Ultimately, there is the NCAA Selection Committee and the Coordinator of Officials who decide who gets in. They email you for the first game and call you back after that.”

Littlewood officiated the Iowa State-South Dakota State game and that’s where his tournament run ended.

Swallowing the whistle?

BYU’s time in the Big Dance also ended in Dayton at the hands of Duquesne. With three officials on the floor, the Dukes played a physical game that left the Cougars battered, bruised and, often times, pushed out of the way.

BYU wasn’t alone. The anything-goes approach, which seemed different from how games were called in the regular season, could be spotted all over the tournament. In some cases, it looked as if the officials were instructed to swallow their whistles and let everybody go at it — a notion Littlewood refuted.

Related
How this would-be BYU baseball coach gave unlikely assist to Team USA Basketball’s 2008 gold medal run

“We definitely have a philosophy on how we are calling certain plays,” Littlewood said. “We are not swallowing our whistles, but we are letting them play. The physicality of tournament games is just the nature of what’s on the line.”

Video review

Another area of fan frustration is the length and frequency of video reviews. This is when the teams are sent to their respective benches and the officials go to the scorer’s table to determine the validity of a call.

The closer the play, the longer they look.

“In the NCAA Tournament, they provide 12 different angles of a play that is under review,” Littlewood said. “If you aren’t sure, you keep looking. You can’t walk away from there without making a decision.”

Often, an official will also consult with the television crew to see what replay angles they have.

“Yes, it slows the game down,” Littlewood said. “But the percentage of correct calls goes up.”

Technical fouls

Littlewood called a dozen technical fouls over the course of the season where he worked up to five games per week. To the average fan, being able to “T” up a coach or player might seem like the ultimate power, but not to Littlewood.

“I view them as just another foul. It’s two free throws. They don’t get the ball with a technical foul. It’s two free throws and we play on,” he said. “A technical is looked at differently because it’s usually on the head coach. The ones I’ve given are when (the coach) has lost his mind in the moment, which I have done on the baseball field — so I get it. Or if he wants to get the technical foul and a lot of times I feel that’s the case.”

Too many fouls, too little fun

A notion everyone can agree on is too many foul calls can take the fun out of the game and March Madness has built itself on the premise of exciting basketball that creates shining moments no one can afford to miss.

Even the officials don’t want the fouls and sometimes they will resort to preventative measures to try and keep things moving.

“I look at myself now as a mentor to younger guys coming up. But I’d love to get back there. I want to get back to the tournament because it’s such a special thing.”

—  Former BYU baseball head coach Mike Littlewood

“You try to talk them out of it. You will see referees on the baseline take their whistle out of their mouth and say, ‘straight up’ or ‘get off him’ or out top you will say ‘no hands,’” Littlewood said. “But a lot of times they don’t want to listen, or they are just so caught up in the moment they think, ‘When you try to go by me, I’m gonna stick my hand out and bump you a little bit,’ and that’s a foul. Any day of the week, that’s a foul.”

No weakness

Whether an official is right or wrong on a call, and despite the mood in the venue, they must always act with confidence to fend off manipulation efforts by the two head coaches.

“We had a few coaches speak to us and they said, ‘If you show a weakness, you are basically swimming among sharks. If they see the weakest link, they are going after him,’” Littlewood said. “I’ve seen it. Usually, it’s the younger guy. Sometimes it’s the way older guy. But they will find it, so you have to exude confidence without being arrogant. It’s a fine line. You can’t show weakness out there.”

The Final Four

Purdue, NC State, UConn and Alabama headline this weekend’s Final Four in Arizona. A team of highly acclaimed officials will be there too. Littlewood, who as a former coach is prohibited from officiating BYU games, finds himself in the same position as the Cougars — both hoping to return to the tournament next year and advance beyond the first round.

“I have a different perspective on things now. I just want to get better as an official because there is so much scrutiny. You want to know the rules so you can make good play calls,” Littlewood said. “I look at myself now as a mentor to younger guys coming up. But I’d love to get back there. I want to get back to the tournament because it’s such a special thing.”

Special for the players, coaches and the referees.

Iowa State's Tamin Lipsey heads to the basket as South Dakota State's Luke Appel (13) and Matt Mims (1) defend during NCAA Tournament game Thursday, March 21, 2024, in Omaha, Neb.
Iowa State's Tamin Lipsey heads to the basket as South Dakota State's Luke Appel (13) and Matt Mims (1) defend during NCAA Tournament game Thursday, March 21, 2024, in Omaha, Neb. Former BYU baseball head coach Mike Littlewood was a member of the officiating crew. | Charlie Neibergall, Associated Press