Near the beginning of the movie The Godfather, when supplicants are visiting with the Don and asking him for his help with their problems, singer/actor Johnny Fontaine cries to the Don, "What should I do?" Don Corleone answers him by slapping him across his face and telling him to "Be a man!"
That is the advice I have for certain Mid-American Conference basketball officials.
Officiating basketball is an extremely difficult, thankless job. In fact, of all the major sports basketball follows only ice hockey in terms of difficulty. The players are very big, very quick and there is a certain degree of contact on every play. Quality college basketball officials are hard to find, and when a referee makes a name for himself at the collegiate level the chances are that the NBA, a league always on the lookout for strong officials, will come calling.
There are quite a few factors that make up a good basketball official. He/she needs to be patient, thin-skinned, smart, quick-thinking, confident, fair, accountable and consistent. Those are just the character traits I can come up with off the top of my head. And, of all these traits, consistency is the one that coaches appreciate the most.
One thing a basketball official has to do is to ignore the crowd. He cannot get caught up in the frenzy and energy of the cheering fans and must call the game like he was in an empty gym all alone with just the players on the floor. In some of the louder gyms in the MAC ... Millett Hall in Miami, The M.A.C. Center in Kent and James A. Arena in Akron come to mind ... it can be a challenge to ignore the will of the people around you, but that's what an official has to do. He must be his own man and cannot be afraid to make an unpopular call.
A good example of this is Steve Javie in the NBA. Most fans hate Javie because he has a quick trigger in handing out technical fouls and he thinks nothing of calling one of those 50-50 calls against the home team. Hate him all you want, but you cannot deny he is a great basketball referee. And someone the officials in the MAC should study.
There have been more than a handful of poorly-officiated games in the MAC this season, games with one specific number that defies logic. I am talking about games with an inexplicable free-throw disparity. When two teams play a game, and the home team shoots a large number more free-throws than the visiting team, the chances of the visiting team winning are very slim. Some teams come very close to overcoming this, like Kent State in Oxford Wednesday night, but for the most part the team that ends on the short end of the stick in free-throws also ends up on the short end of the scoreboard.
One thing has always bothered me about how the media treats officials. In basketball, the referees are usually untouchable. There have been a few exceptions, like the whole Tim Duncan issue with Joe Crawford, but the officials are usually given free rein to dodge the request to explain themselves on a critical call. If a critical call is made that changes a game, the NBA will rarely allow a pool reporter to ask questions to the lead referee of a crew. But that almost never happens.
Sorry, I don't play like that. If an official takes a paycheck he should be accountable for his body of work in a certain game.
The first game I want to talk about was the January 9 game when Central Michigan travelled to Western Michigan. This game was officiated by Terry Weymer, Steve Skiles and Glenn Mayborg.
By the time this game was played it was quite clear that Central Michigan was having a down year while the jury was still out on the Broncos. During the game the Chippewas went to the line 18 times to 35 for Western Michigan. WMU won this game 63-56 in overtime.
I have watched both teams play numerous times. A lot of time teams will not get to the line much because they shoot a lot from the perimeter, but this is not the case with the Chippewas. They are a team that drives a lot and plays in the paint. There is no reason for one team to shoot 17 more free-throws than the other, and when the team with the advantage at the line is the home team it makes you think about if the officials might have gotten intimidated or persuaded by the crowd.
And, no, CMU was not fouling late in the game to try to come back. I looked at this and it did not play out that way.
Another game that took place early in the conference schedule was Bowling Green at Kent, a game officiated by Bo Boroski, D.J. Carstenson and Gen Steratore. In this January 11 game the Golden Flashes were called for just eight fouls the entire game. Bowling Green shot just six free-throws in 40 minutes of play, while Kent State went to the line 26 times. The Golden Flashes won this game 80-63, and with that kind of advantage at the line it's no wonder Kent won the game in a walk.
On January 12 Western Michigan travelled to Muncie to face Ball State and went home with a 72-63 loss. This game was notable because the Broncos were whistled by the crew of Jerry Sauder, Lamont Simpson and Tim Steward for 27 fouls while the Cardinals were called for 17. Demetrius Ward fouled out for WMU and Nate Hutcheson and Matt Stainbrook each battled through foul trouble and ended up with four each. No player for Ball State was whistled for more than three fouls. The Cardinals ended the game with a 35-14 advantage from the free-throw line.
Three days later Central Michigan went to Muncie and received the same kind of treatment as its neighbors from the west, losing 64-55 in a game that saw Ball State shoot an astounding 42 charity tosses to its 10. The officials, Dan Nowakowski, Steve McJunkins and Troy Pope, called 28 fouls on the Chippewas to 17 on Ball State. William McClure and Andre Coimbra fouled out of the game and a pair of Chips ended up with four. Randy Davis was called for four fouls for Ball State, but he was the only Cardinal in foul trouble.
Here is an amazing statistic...in the second half Ball State was 8-of-14 from the floor, but was 21-of-28 from the line to turn a five-point halftime deficit into its nine-point victory.
At this point you might be asking yourself if I know what I'm talking about. Well, let me give you an example of a game where the numbers do not tell the entire story, the Jan. 19 game between Akron and Miami, in Oxford, officiated by Chris Beaver, Bill Elk and Mike Foote. In this game, an 84-76 RedHawks win, Miami shot 28 free-throws to Akron's 14. Julian Mavunga alone was 12-of-15 from the line for the RedHawks. However, if you dig deeper into the game information you will see that 16 of Miami's 28 free-throws came in the final 1:37 of play. What does this mean? Obviously, Akron was fouling the RedHawks, primarily Mavunga, late in the game to stop the clock and force Miami to hit its free-throws.
On the other hand if you look at Akron's game in DeKalb against Northern Illinois on Jan. 26, things were quite a bit different. The crew of D.J. Carstensen, Bart Wegenre and Rob Kruger gave the NIU fans a treat. They got to see Xavier Silas, their star player and one of the nation's leading scorers, seemingly head to the line all afternoon. Silas shot 20 of the Huskies' 40 free-throws, while Akron shot just 12 as a team. Four of the Zips' five starters, and the first player off their bench, Brett McKnight, ended the game with four fouls as Akron was whistled for 27 total. NIU was called for 17 in what turned out to be a huge upset win for Northern Illinois and a game that just might keep the Zips from getting back into contention for the MAC East title.
There is a pair of recent games that were puzzling as well, the Feb. 12 game between Buffalo and Eastern Michigan in Ypsilanti and the Feb. 16 game when Kent headed south to Oxford with first place in the MAC East on the line.
First the Buffalo-Eastern Michigan game officiated by Gregory Langsdorf, Jerry Sauder and Frank Spencer. In this game, a 78-65 Eagles upset win that put a serious damper on Buffalo's division title hopes, the Bulls big men were in foul trouble all night. Both Mitchell Watt and Javon McCrea were on the bench with two fouls mid-way through the first half. Then, early in the second, McCrea was called for his third at 14:13. Then, to make matters worse, Watt, one of the leading shot blockers in the conference, was given his third 30 seconds later. Then, 13 seconds after that, he was back on the bench with his fourth.
All told the Bulls were called for 27 fouls while the Eagles were called for 14. Buffalo shot 12 free-throws while EMU shot 35. Brandon Bowdry alone shot more free-throws, 13, than the entire Buffalo team.
Finally, Kent's 86-80 overtime loss at Miami that put the RedHawks into first place in the MAC East, a half-game ahead of the Golden Flashes. In this game, officiated by B.J. Carstensen, Todd Williams and Mike Ashurst, each Kent starter was whistled for at least four fouls. Starting off-guard Michael Porrini, Kent's best on-ball defender, fouled out with 2:39 remaining in overtime and Kent up by a basket. Miami, on the other hand, was whistled for just 14 fouls as a team in 45 minutes of action. The RedHawks shot 35 from the line while Kent went to the line 13 times. Kent power forward Justin Greene, one of the top power forwards in the conference, was just 3-of-10 from the floor and went to the line just once...splitting a pair. Miami's Julian Mavunga, another of the MAC's top power forwards, went 4-for-11 from the floor, but he went 9-of-13 from the line. It was a physical, emotional battle all evening and the scrap down low between Mavunga and Green was intense...but one shot 11 more free-throws than the other. The one wearing home white.
The Mid-American Conference is a very good basketball league with top-notch talent. As a mid-major it does not get the national recognition those who follow it feel it deserves as a conference. Games such as the ones I have discussed here do not go very far in bolstering a conference's reputation. Games like these, where the perception that the home team was heavily favored is quite understandable, do nothing to improve a conference's standing on a national level.
I hope Ricky Stokes, the associate commissioner and director of men's basketball operations for the Mid-American Conference, takes a good, long look at the games I have talked about and, if he deems it necessary, discusses with his officials what they did wrong.
His message should be clear: Shut out the crowd, have confidence in your calls, be consistent and be a man about it.