As painful as it has become to watch the West Virginia men’s basketball team at times this year in their maiden voyage through Big 12 play, there is one thing that’s been harder to watch. And to this casual observer, it’s been the officiating.
After roughly a dozen conference games, I’ve concluded the officiating in the Big 12 is bad – Jim Burr bad. Make no mistake, I’m not pinning
what has become a sometimes barely watchable form of basketball this year on the backs of the men in the striped shirts; far from it. You could have Earl Strom and Sheriff Tiano involved, one giving some quality officiating and the other a little home cooking (most who follow sports in general and WVU in particular will know what title goes with who), and it wouldn’t make the WVU brand of basketball look any better this year or provided anymore wins.
The reality of the situation is at every level, officials do not determine the outcome of games 99 percent of the time or greater. I can honestly say of the thousands of games I've watched or covered, I can count the number of times I believe the officials altered the outcome of games on my two hands.
With those formalities pushed out of the way, you don’t need to be a league advisor of officials to come to the conclusion that the officiating product from those doing games in the Big 12 is below standard. All you need are a pair of eyes. And that’s all I’m basing this on – my eyes. There have been no formal studies or breakdowns done by yours truly. I’m just a man with a remote and access to a keyboard stating his opinion.
I fully understand the Big 12 style of play is much different than that of the rough and tumble Big East. Bob Huggins, whose coached too long not to know otherwise, likely knows his style of play will have to adapt. At least some of my belief as to what I'm seeing relates to that, but that's not the whole picture. And I also know that the officials aren't employed by the Big 12, but rather serve in an independent contracting manner.
With that in mind, perhaps I still felt comfortable enough to make the statement that the officiating is as without flow as the WVU offense came after watching several other Big 12 games not involving the Mountaineers where I was able to come to the same conclusion. Thanks to WVU’s entry into the new league, local cable is offering up plenty of Big 12 action and due to my love affair with recliners, I’ve watched more than just a few games. What I’ve noticed is it’s almost impossible for any team to get into any type of flow with an abundance of whistles.
Have there been back to back games this year where WVU or their opponent haven’t seen every single big man saddled with fouls in the first half? Has there been a game where a team’s front line players weren’t forced to sit out because they all had four fouls late? For that matter, it’s often not just limited to a team’s bigs, but anyone who happens to be wearing a home or away uniform.
Again, there isn’t a thing scientific about what I’m writing here. Yet, I did go to the Web site www.statsheet.com
on Thursday and found the section on referees. I was very pleased to find the listing of the officials and most fouls per game. Considering the numbers listed with each official were quite high, I can only assume it’s not the fouls called by the individual referee in each game, but the number of fouls called by their crew. In the top 25 of the list of the top 200, 20 percent were made up of officials who did most of their work, or at least a sizable portion, in the Big 12.
Leading the list of those from the Big 12? Why that would be one Mr. John Higgins. I had the pleasure of watching courtside of Higgins’ handling of WVU’s game with Kansas at the Coliseum earlier this year. If his handling of that game was as meticulous as his handling of his hair, it would have been fine. It was not.
That said, Higgins and the crews he’s been part of this year have called 2211 fouls to hold on to the number nine spot. Although my first prolonged exposure to John Higgins has been this year, after watching him handle multiple games on television during this current season, this doesn’t surprise me. In fact, I would only have been surprised had he not been in the top 25.
The numbers did validate that it wasn’t my obviously deeply entrenched bias regarding any official with the last name of Higgins (please see Tim Higgins, who oddly resembles the aforementioned Jim Burr). The guy is whistle happy and apparently so are those working with him.
As for the rest of the list involving the top 25 and guys who work largely in the land of the Big 12, the list as of this past Thursday included Mike Stuart at No. 11 (2190 fouls), Tom O’Neill at No. 18 (2024 fouls), Doug Sirmons at No. 23 (1980 fouls), and Tom Eades at No. 25 (1,951 fouls).
In fairness, calling a lot of fouls doesn't necessarily make you bad at what you do if you have a whistle around your neck. So interpret these numbers as you would like. I've done that already.
And as a side note, good old Teddy Valentine found himself ranked at No. 24 with 1,962 fouls called. While primarily a Big Ten official, Valentine used to plow the hardwoods right here in the Mountain State as a high school official and, well, he probably would have made a similar list for prep officials had one been available at the time. It was Valentine who has the pleasure of being involved in the second worst officiated game I’ve ever witnessed; a state tournament game, and it involved Liberty Harrison and Oak Hill in 1986. The worst prep game? That would have been the matchup between Brooke and DuPont back when Randy Moss’ brother was playing for DHS and the teams met, in a place where poor officiating is the norm, the state tournament and Valentine wasn't part of that fiasco.
I don’t know if I’ve ever watched so many games in any one season where I’ve seen teams in the bonus five minutes into a half, or the double bonus with roughly 10 minutes remaining in a half. It’s generally more the rule than the exception in the Big 12 games I've watched.
Heck, maybe I have some of my thoughts all wrong. Maybe the numbers listed above are off base on the Web site and maybe I’m not seeing what I think I’m seeing. If I had to bet, though, I think I’m seeing things just fine this year, even as a casual observer. And what I’m seeing, is often making me a nauseated one.