Refereeing controversy rocks Big East Tournament

NEW YORK - A sold-out Madison Square Garden and college basketball fans across the nation collectively erupted this afternoon, as the end of the Rutgers-St. John's game was marred by multiple extremely costly refereeing blunders.

With 4.9 seconds left in the game and the score 65-63 in favor of St. John's, Rutgers inbounded the ball. A long pass from the end line came to big man Gilvydas Biruta, who couldn't hold onto the ball under pressure from two St. John's defenders.

Red Storm forward Justin Brownlee got the loose ball. He dribbled to midcourt and then, knowing that time was about to expire, took multiple steps without dribbling the ball.

After crossing midcourt - and stepping out of bounds along the way, though it wasn't seen by almost any observers in real time - Brownlee threw the ball into the stands in celebration before time expired.

None of the infractions were whistled by the game's referees: Jim Burr, Tim Higgins and Earl Walton. Neither the contact on Biruta, nor the apparent foul on Mike Coburn's drive to the basket on the previous play, nor Brownlee's travel, nor the out-of-bounds step produced a stoppage.

And when the ball was thrown into the stands, time was allowed to expire. There was no courtside review of whether time should have been put back on the clock.

Here's video of the sequence:

As you would expect, reaction to the incidents was swift and fierce. Here are just a few examples from the national media on Twitter:

Andy Katz, "The NCAA controls the officiating crew and those three officials should not officiate in the NCAA tournament. Accountability is key here."

Seth Davis, CBS/Sports Illustrated: "Refs can use the monitor for a timing error and didn't even do that. That's not #winning. Maybe they had sun spots."

Noah Coslov, Cinesport (with whom we work often here at "this is BRUTAL! Early bird doesn't even start from another 20 minutes, where are the refs heading!?!?"

Brendan Quinn, college basketball writer for The Inquirer: "WOEFUL officiating in the final 30 secs of SJU-Rutgers. They basically stopped calling the game. Mike Rice has every right to throw a fit."

Dan Steinberg, The Washington Post: "It's ok. NHL officials who saw that dude on St. John's taking 15 steps out of bounds insisted he was making 'a basketball play.'

You can certainly see in the video that Scarlet Knights coach Mike Rice was irate. As well he should have been. Here were his remarks after the game:

I saw it on YouTube. They will admit it. I made several mistakes, my players made several mistakes, I'm sure that my staff who thinks they're always right made several mistakes. We have the greatest officials in America.


I have not heard any response from the Big East or the officials, for three of them to - again, it was a mistake. It's got to be a mistake. I watched it on YouTube. It's something three great officials, I've had them all throughout the year, impeccable reputation, it's unfortunate. My heart - believe me, there is going to be blood coming through my tonuge right now, but it's what it is, we're going to control how we respond.


I was a lunatic, to be honest with you, and I lost some self-control, I admit it. And I thought he got - again, it was a judgement call. Had I known it was 1.2 [seconds left when the ball went out], I might have literally held on, done a Van Gundy and held one of their legs on the court. It is what it is, judgement, and I'm sure they're going to admit it's a mistake becaues it's on YouTube now.

Rice told ESPN's SportsCenter this evening that longtime Big East boss Dave Gavitt came up to him after the game and apologized for the mistakes that had been made.

The Big East did admit to "two separate officiating errors." But according to the conference, the calls could not have been changed, which means the players could not have been brought back out onto the court.

Here is the official statement that the Big East issued:

The BIG EAST Conference acknowledges that two seprate officiating errors occured at the conclusion of the St. John's vs. Rutgers game. Both missed violations should have caused the game clock to stop and a change of possession to occur prior to the end of the game. Neither error is reviewable or correctable under NCAA playing rules.

I went to the NCAA Rule Book to see if I could prove that last sentence correct. Here's what I found. Under Rule 2, Officials and Their Duties, Section 13 pertains to "Games with Replay/Television Equipment," and this game certainly falls under that cagegory.

Art 2. Officials may use such available equipment only in the following situations


c. Timing

2. Determine whether a timing mistake has occurred in either starting or stopping the game clock. Determination is based on the judgment of the official. After the mistake to either start or stop the game clock, such a mistake shall be corrected during the first dead ball or during the next live ball but before the ball is touched inbounds or out of bounds by a player.

When the clock should have been continuously running, the mistake shall be corrected before the second live ball is touched inbounds or out of bounds by a player. No timing mistake correction shall be carried over from one half or extra period to another. Such a mistake shall be corrected before the start of the intermission.

3. Determine the correct time to be placed back on the game clock when the referee blows the whistle, signals for the game clock to be stopped, and in his/her judgment time has elapsed before the game clock stopped.


Art. 3. When there is a reading of zeros on the game clock and after making a call on the playing court, the officials shall use such available equipment in the following situations:

a. Determine whether a try for field goal entering the basket was released before the reading of zeros on the game clock at the end of the first half, or at the end of the second half/extra period only when necessary to determine the outcome of a game. (See Rule 5-7.2.b.) When it is determined that the try for goal was successful, the official is permitted to put the exact time back on the game clock as to when the ball passed through the net.

b. Determine whether a shot-clock violation occurred before the reading of zeros on the game clock at the end of the first half, or at the end of the second half/extra period only when necessary to determine the outcome of a game.

c. Determine whether a foul occurred before the reading of zeros on the game clock at the end of the first half, or at the end of the second half/extra period only when necessary to determine the outcome of a game. When it is determined that the foul occurred before the reading of zeros on the game clock, the official is permitted to put the exact time back on the game clock as to when the foul was committed.

Art. 4. In games with a 10th-of-a-second game clock display and where an official courtside monitor is used, the reading of zeros on the game clock is to be used to determine whether a try for goal, a shot-clock violation or a foul occurred before or after the expiration of time in any period. When the game clock is not visible, the officials shall verify the original call with the use of the red/LED light(s).

When the red/LED light(s) are not visible, the sounding of the game-clock horn shall be utilized. When definitive information is unattainable with the use of the monitor, the original call stands.

What does this all mean? First of all, note that there is no explicit reference made to the ball going out of bounds without a foul occuring. There is also no explicit reference to a non-call that does not stop the game.

In short, I think it means the Big East's statement is technically correct. It stinks, because the actions, or more properly inactions, of the officiating crew was still inexcusably bad. And if you want to call it a cop-out, I'm not going to stop you. But technically, it's correct... and I don't even like writing that, frankly. We all saw what happened, and we don't need a rule book to tell us.

It was also noted by a few people in the press room here at the Garden that the Big East's statement did not contain any explicit apology to Rutgers. Nor did it state that Burr, Higgins or Walton will not work games again in the Big East Tournament. 

From my reading the NCAA rules, it seems to me that  Article 2 allows an official's judgement to be a decisive factor in an end-of-game situation. The poor judgement exercised by Burr, Higgns and Walton becomes even more glaring since Burr and Higgins are two of the most experienced refs anywhere in college basketball.

Granted, they are also among the most unpopular officials in the Big East - and I know Villanova fans have a particularly high level of venom reserved for Higgins. He has a reputation for making his presence known in games, to put it one way.

Of all the reactions out there tonight, there's one that's probably more important than the others. John Adams, the man in charge of selecting referees for the NCAA Tournament, told's Andy Katz: "Not officiating to the end of a game is unacceptable."

That's quite a statement from a guy who's shoulder-deep in NCAA Tournament preparations in Indianapolis right now.

What do you think of all this? Should Higgins and Burr be barred from officiating at the NCAA Tournament? Will they be? Let me know what you think.