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TOM DAVIS: Hey NCAA, what are you watching?

Bucknell men's basketball coach Nathan Davis argues the foul call on Bucknell forward Zach Thomas, walking to the bench, after Thomas fouled out during the second half of a first round NCAATournament game against Michigan State Friday in Detroit. (By The Associated Press)
Michigan State men's basketball coach Tom Izzo disputes a call during the first half of a first round game against Bucknell in the NCAA Tournament Friday in Detroit. (By The Associated Press)
Bucknell forward Zach Thomas (23) drives on Michigan State forward Jaren Jackson Jr. (2) during the first half of an NCAA Tournament first-round game in Detroit Friday. (By The Associated Press)
Bucknell forward Zach Thomas reacts after hitting a basket against Michigan State during the first half of an NCAA men's college basketball tournament first-round game in Detroit, Friday, March 16, 2018. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

DETROIT – During the second half of Michigan State’s eventual 82-78 victory over Bucknell in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament Friday, Spartan forward Nick Ward got tangled up on a fast break with Bison guard Kimbal Mackenzie, and the 245-pound behemoth fell directly onto his face in an upright position before tumbling over.

Every single one of the 20,000-plus people in Little Caesars Arena grew silent following a frightened “Ohhhh!”

And Spartan coach Tom Izzo wasn’t exempt from that.

“I wasn’t worried about him being hurt,” Izzo said following the game. “Nick’s probably my toughest guy on the team. But when he did lay there a little while longer, I don’t know.”

Izzo did watch as the Michigan State training staff tended to Ward, but after a few moments, he directed his attention back to the game, and started to work the officiating crew again.

As he walked up the baseline during the deadball, nearly into the paint, he screamed at a game official.

The pressure that Izzo placed upon the officiating crew didn’t start at that point of the night, and it only ceased upon the final horn being blown.

Now is this an insinuation that Michigan State prevailed in a close game because of Izzo’s continued badgering of the officials?

Absolutely not.

The legendary coach didn’t need to place any undue pressure on the game officials to make the game sway towards the Spartans. The entire system already does that.

I spoke with several coaches recently, and to be truthful some had absolutely nothing to do with this NCAA site, and what I was told was interesting to say the least.

One coach referred to officiating as “the biggest racket in sports.”

That coach added that if the topic were ever addressed, honestly, the whole system could crumble.

Well, here I am.

I’m not here to blame a specific coach or cite a specific game or chastise a specific official, though I will give a clear example of the troubling issue and I will name names. It is the system that is broken, not an individual, who is simply caught up in it.

Friday’s game was a rough-and-tumble affair, in which 45 fouls were called, including technical fouls on Spartan guard Joshua Langford and Bison forward Zach Thomas, the latter of which proved critical in the game.

“I thought it was one of the more bizarre,” Izzo said, “I thought we were playing Purdue. It was a fistfight. It was physical. It was kind of out of control.”

You can imagine how Bucknell coach Nathan Davis, whose roster was significantly smaller in stature and girth than Izzo’s, must’ve felt.

Izzo rode the officials continuously and with just over six minutes remaining, his efforts were finally rewarded.

Big Ten official DJ Carstensen whistled Thomas, who was the 2018 Patriot League Player of the Year, for a fifth and decisive foul. It was not only just a foul call, but a technical foul. And he called it from nearly a half-court away.

“I drove from the top of the key,” Thomas explained to News-Sentinel.com following the game, “bounced it to (Bison center Nana Foulland), and I thought he got fouled. But I was backpedaling. It was a physical game. I thought (Carstensen) maybe missed a couple of calls, or (Foulland) got fouled on a couple of others before that.

“I was just backpedalling. I said ‘What are you watching?’ from about, like, half court. He was still on the baseline. I didn’t think he was looking at me, but apparently he heard me and he didn’t like it.

“I shouldn’t have said it, but I mean I didn’t agree with the call. At least warn me or something.”

Now am I of the belief that Carstensen has some vendetta against Thomas or Bucknell?

Absolutely not.

But am I positive that, based on the officiating system, that Carstensen has a financial interest in Izzo being pleased with the officiating more so than Davis?

Absolutely.

As an independent contractor, officials often work in various leagues and the money can be unreal.

It is nothing for an official to make several thousand dollars for officiating a 40-minute game and with affiliation to several leagues, the money can pile up quickly.

And just as the coaches want to climb the college basketball ladder, so do the officials.

Suffice to say, a guy makes significantly more money to officiate a Big Ten game as opposed to a Mid-American Conference (just for example) game. So there is incentive to get to the biggest stage.

And there is even more incentive to remain there.

If Carstensen – or any official for that matter – gets on the wrong side of a high-major coach, particularly if he is a renowned one, the coach can fill out an evaluation (I was told some leagues do this by game, others by season) of that official, which if negative, can make it difficult to remain in that league.

A coach told me that it would probably take more than just one coach doing this to demote an official, while another said don’t fool yourself, Izzo carries weight with the Big Ten coordinator of officials (Rick Boyages).

The indisputable fact is that every time DJ Carstensen – or any official, for that matter – blows his whistle, it is a business decision with potential financial ramifications.

Much like the college basketball recruitment dilemma, there seems to be a number of ways to address the situation, but most not logistically or legally feasible or realistic.

However, one coach explained a very simple way to address the officiating problem.

Instead of the officials working as independent contractors, make them employees of the NCAA and hold them accountable for their calls.

The coach would like the officials to take part in postgame film sessions, as well as off-season training situations at practices.

Another suggestion was to have a number of the league’s supervisor of officials be former coaches, so that they can better understand the game within the game.

“It’s not the foul that you called,” he hypothetically explained, “it’s the action that happened three plays before the foul that you missed, which resulted in the eventual foul.”

If Carstensen knew that he was going to be evaluated – but not by Izzo – then that would eliminate any doubt as to what to do in a split-second moment involving large athletes moving at high speeds.

The Bucknell faithful that trekked to Detroit to watch their favorite team play may have walked out into the chilly Michigan night with the thought that Carstensen screwed them out of a potential moment of glory, and they have a legitimate point.

But the problem is much broader than some in-game chatter by a frustrated athlete.

The NCAA has no shortage of unethical activity motivated by financial gain permeating its organization and this is simply another instance of such.

But outcomes and careers are being deeply impacted by this problem and it is time that someone asks – not Carstensen, but the NCAA – ‘What are you watching?’

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Tom Davis at Tdavis@news-sentinel.com.

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