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College Basketball Referee Assignments For Ncaa

CBS Sports college basketball writers Gary Parrish, Matt Norlander and Reid Forgrave spent much of July on the road in cities across the country, covering the live recruiting periods. While there, and in the weeks since, they've surveyed coaches for our annual Candid Coaches series. They polled everyone from head coaches at elite programs to assistants at some of the smallest schools in Division I. In exchange for complete anonymity, coaches give unfiltered honesty about a number of topics in the sport. This is week No. 2 of our results to questions posed to more than 100 coaches.

One of the interesting dynamics in sports is how coaches deal with game officials. Styles vary, from the combative to the cynical, from butt-kissing to aggressive. Some coaches tick like a time bomb, using officials' behavior as means to motivate their players, while others treat officials with an entirely different demeanor from how they interact with their players. 

Candid Coaches

College basketball coaches, on the whole, have an undeniably aggressive mindset toward officials. Watch an NBA game and the difference is glaring. How often do you see an NBA coach attempt to scold a referee or find himself ejected after getting T'd up? Rarely. But on any given college hoops weekend, you're likely to see a coach (or coaches) somewhere on the wrong end of a tech. College coaches, for whatever reason, have conditioned themselves to be more outspoken and pugnacious with referees than their NBA counterparts.

College coaches, by their admission, can become caricatures of themselves when game time arrives. Refs often are on the most exaggerated end of that behavior. And yet, in the heart of the offseason, the coaches we surveyed had plenty to say and lots of respect to throw at a number of officials. That was refreshing (get back to us come mid-February).

With that in mind, we asked more than 100 college basketball coaches: 

Who is the best referee in college basketball?

Rank

Official

Primary league

Vote percentage

1.

Roger Ayers

ACC

21 percent

2.

Mike Eades

ACC

17 percent

3. 

Ted Valentine

ACC

15 percent

T4.

Verne Harris

Pac-12

7 percent

T4.

John Higgins

Big 12

7 percent

T4.

Mike Stephens

Big East

7 percent

Quotes that stood out

On Roger Ayers ...

  • "He has good communications. He'll usually give you a chance to talk to him. You have to respect that. No one's perfect, and he'll admit when [he is] right or wrong. And he does a great job reffing big games."
  • "He has a great demeanor, and he's a great communicator. He can move. He has a healthy ego but he's not an egomaniac."
  • "He doesn't have a combative demeanor at all. He'll say, 'Hey, sorry, got that wrong' if it's clear he got something wrong. And he doesn't really ever try to make it about him. There are so many of those guys. If they get a call wrong and a coach gets on them, then they'll be shell-shocked or they go the other way on you."
  • "I think that he's fair, communicates well and is a great play-caller. What I mean by that: I don't care about managing the game. I want a guy that gets the plays right. He works hard at that. Communication is part of managing the game, so they have to communicate with you, so you don't feel any tension with the way he communicates with you. I think he's the best in the game.
  • "Roger Ayers. I might have given it to Mike Eades, but after that championship game performance ... "

On Mike Eades ...

  • "He's done a ton of high-level games. He has a great on-court demeanor. I've seen opposing coaches 'motherf---' him, and he doesn't jump off deep end and immediately give guys a technical. He understands basketball and how things flow together. In an off night he may work A-10 games, but he's not looking down on those guys. He's still busting his butt and pouring into the game. He's also willing to have a conversation in between dead balls, timeouts. Some guys only talk to head coaches, not assistants. If you have legit questions, he'll explain."
  • "I felt sorry for him -- he had a terrible [national] championship game, but he is very level-headed and communicates well with coaches. This is a very underrated part of being a great official, in my opinion."
  • "I think you know you're going to get a fair shot, whether you're home or away. The moment's not too big for him in my opinion. Experienced guy. Doesn't give you the big-time stuff. He's a big-time guy and he never big-times you. You don't expect the out-of-nowhere technical foul when you jump his ass at the end of the game and it's as four-point game. If you do that with some guys, the game's over. I've seen plenty who I do think are good officials and have popped guys in those situations. Moment is too big for them."
  • "Nowadays it's more personality, more than calls made right or wrong. It's the refs who don't have agenda. A ref who doesn't let his own ego get in the way. Every ref is going to make good and bad calls, but his personality doesn't get in the way. He's out there reffing the game."

On Ted Valentine ...

  • "He's so crazy. He's a little long in the tooth, and he's one of the of five best officials of all time, in my opinion, and we've had him a lot. I've had Crazy Ted, I've had Ted on his best nights. He doesn't anticipate anything. He sees the play through, and is going to give you a fair shake. Does not matter who you are playing. To this day I think he's terrific. Now, has he burned some bridges? Probably. But the guy can still manage a game and the stuff that comes along with it."
  • "The game never gets too big, intense or even remotely out of control with him. He does not get swayed, home or road. He takes great pride in his ability, conditioning and awareness. He provides reminders throughout the game to players about the line they are close to foul-wise -- and that's something that doesn't happen nearly enough."
  • "He's obviously a showman of all showmen. My opinion, he's enjoying the camera and wants to be the show. But we had him once last year, and maybe in the last five years we've had him three times. But I'd lean toward him because he's given us a fair shake against high-major programs every time he's had us. Whether he has something against the other coach, which he certainly could, I don't care because he's giving us a fair shake." 

On Verne Harris ...

  • "He's strong, for one. He's got a high level of concentration, two. He understands the game really, really well, three. I think he's in good shape, four. And he's a great communicator, five. Those are the five things that come to mind to make a great ref."
  • "He talks to the kids and the coaches, and I don't see him get too emotional and respond when a coach responds too emotionally to him: 'That's a foul!' Sometimes they respond in same way. His thing is to come over, say, 'Hey, I'm only going to listen if you talk to me instead of yell at me.'"

On John Higgins ... 

  • "I think he's fair. I think he lets the players dictate the game. I think that he's not influenced by any coach. I don't think any coach intimidates him. If you see where he's at every year, you see he's almost always in the Final Four. Like him, don't like him, I think he's the fairest and absolutely the most consistent official."
  • "There's some guys out there, John Higgins -- don't get me started."

On Mike Stephens ...

  • "He has a great demeanor, and he's a great communicator. He can move. He has a healthy ego but he's not an ego-maniac."

Takeaways

Some top-of-the-resumé information about the poll's big winners:

  • Ayers: 11 NCAA Tournaments; seven Sweet 16s; one Elite Eight; two Final Fours (one as an alternate) 
  • Eades: 12 NCAA Tournaments: four Sweet 16s; five Elite Eights; four Final Fours (one as alternate) 
  • Valentine: 28 NCAA Tournaments: 16 Sweet 16s; nine Elite Eights; 10 Final Fours 
  • Harris: 20 NCAA Tournaments: 8 Sweet 16s; seven Elite Eights; nine Final Fours 
  • Higgins: 20 NCAA Tournaments: nine Sweet 16s; eight Elite Eights; eight Final Fours (one as alternate) 
  • Stephens: 10 NCAA Tournaments; three Sweet 16s; five Elite Eights; five Final Fours 

All these officials are crew chiefs, and all work the biggest conferences, so it makes sense they would get the most votes. Top-notch officials, for the most part, are not tucked away in small conferences whose games are not on television. It takes years of work to build up a reputation as one of the best, and even if some the names are hated by certain fan bases, these guys are considered elite at their craft for a reason. There are approximately 950 Division I men's basketball officials. The six names listed above represent the top 0.63 percent.

"I guess I got them fooled," Ayers joked, when reached for his reaction to the vote. 

Ayers not only won the poll, but his name was broached by coaches who picked a different No. 1. Ayers has been a Division I official since 1998, and said he's still never worked a perfect game. 

"It's actually a huge surprise," Ayers said. "But to me, I look at it as: when I started reffing in 1995, the high school commissioner told me, 'Kid, if you want to make it at the highest level, you have to learn how to communicate with coaches.' "

Ayers, a lifelong resident of Roanoke, Va., flirted with making the move to the NBA in 2002 after the league invited him to try out. He worked in the Developmental League for a year, but decided his ultimate goal was to one day work a Final Four. Plus, he said he prefers the college game. 

"To hear this, it's a tribute to a lot of people who have helped me," Ayers said. 

Ayers has the data to back up coaches' claims, too. In January, college hoops stats guru Ken Pomeroy declared Ayers the best in the game. Ayers got into officiating on a whim. He was a food broker at a grocery store while in his 20s, when one of his coworkers asked him to help him work four rec games for $50. 

"I had no clue what I was doing," Ayers said. "Every parent was yelling at me, but at the end of the night I fell in love with it. When I started I was out of shape, didn't read the rule books. Now, it's of course the opposite."

Ayers, 52, was reached by phone fresh off a yoga workout, and said he's physically active almost every day. He estimates that he works approximately 85 games a season, including the NCAA Tournament, 

"I'm getting goosebumps talking about," Ayers said. "I can't wait for November 10. I'm ready to go tonight."

Coaches said Ayers is humble and treats every team and coach with the same amount of respect. That, plus his willingness to admit when he's messed up goes a long way -- and one particular screw-up of his that still sticks with him. 

Jan. 5, 2012 -- the infamous six-men-on-the-floor ending. Louisiana-Lafayette won in OT against WKU after it got away with six men on the court on the winning possession. The next day, Western Kentucky fired coach Ken McDonald. Ayers stayed in the locker room two hours after that game and couldn't eat that night because he was sick. His phone blew up with colleagues alerting him to the fact he was continually on SportsCenter

"It still eats at me to this day," Ayers said. "I took the heat because I was the crew chief. I didn't see the sixth player on the court. Not only did they have six players on the court, but the next morning WKU fired their head coach, and I have to live with that. I remember, I'm embarrassed to say it, but at NC State I stopped a game before a throw-in. They only had five, but I stopped play because I'm so paranoid now. If i could ever see that coach, I would love to apologize. I didn't do it on purpose. I'm still choked up about it, and I'm better than that. It will be with me until I retire." 

Ayers, Eades and Valentine represent more than 50 percent of the vote, which speaks to the strength of ACC officiating. Coaches noted that the ACC has a reputation for being the strongest league, not only with regard to crew chiefs, but crews on the whole. The Big Ten, conversely, has the weakest reputation when compared to the ACC, Big East, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC.

 "At the end of the day, coaches have to buy your act," Ayers said. "You have to fool those coaches into believing they can trust you. Work your butt off, run hard, talk to coaches, and officials need to realize is it is not about us. ...  It's a difficult job, fast-paced, but I love what I do. I love what the coaches have to say about me, it's very flattering, but that's all good and fine here in August."

By mid-February, it will be a different story. To paraphrase one coach: The answer I give you now I can almost guarantee will not be the answer I'd give you in the middle of the season. 

Gene Steratore bounds from the officials' locker room at Northwestern's Welsh-Ryan Arena, following a roped-off path to the court.

"Can you put a couple of pretzels aside for halftime?" he asks a concessionaire. "We'll tip you well."

Steratore is America's Ref, known to millions as the dashing man who flags a false start on an NFL Sunday and two days later uses the same motion to whistle a Big Ten basketball player for traveling.

From the Jan. 6 "Waddle and Silvy" show on WMVP-AM 1000:

Marc Silverman: "Everyone loves (Ed) Hochuli, but I believe Steratore is better all the way around."

Tom Waddle: "Not so much because of his physique but because he really explains everything."

Silverman: "He's not only officiating the football game, at Tuesday he's got Wisconsin at Indiana. You watch and go: Is that Gene Steratore?"

Steratore is humble but embraces being called the Deion Sanders of his profession, aka "Prime Time."

"Prime is here!" he tells an old friend working security.

Steps from the court, a boy offers him a slice of pizza. Steratore just smiles. And then he whispers a line that reflects the joy he brings to his job: "They pay us to do this."

In truth, this is not easy money. Basketball officials can be required to make a half-dozen decisions on each of 120 to 140 plays over 40 minutes, and TV viewers and overheated observers expect them to get every call right.

Did the player travel? Who initiated contact? Was there displacement? Was the defender's foot in the restricted zone? Was there continuation? When did the shot clock sound?

And perhaps most difficult of all: How do you keep your cool when a powerful and sometimes physically intimidating coach is blasting you?

"When chaos is erupting in our arena and fans are going crazy," Steratore says, "we have to be the calming force."

Last month the Big Ten gave the Tribune rare access, allowing a reporter to embed with officiating crews at the Rutgers-Purdue and Maryland-Northwestern games, shadowing them before, during and after games — plus while their boss scrutinized their calls at the Big Ten command center.

A summary of what we learned: By the time officials take the floor, they are hours into their workday, having iced, stretched and studied each team. They walk, jog or run as many as 2.5 miles per game. Some work nearly 100 nights from November to March — and they razz each other about their heavy schedules. They can make upward of $3,000 per game but have to pay for their flights, hotels and rental cars. They hunger for an invitation to work the NCAA tournament. They miss about 4.2 calls over 40 minutes.

Nuccio DiNuzzo / Chicago Tribune

And, contrary to some perceptions, the best officials try to avoid issuing technical fouls.

Rick Boyages, who oversees basketball officiating for the Big Ten, says of Steratore: "Gene can take a coach in a most heated state and disarm him in five seconds. It's a real skill."

The best example came Jan. 20, 2015, when more than 17,000 fans packed the Kohl Center to watch two ranked teams — Iowa and Wisconsin — duke it out in an ESPN prime-time game.

Badgers coach Bo Ryan, who rode the officials harder than anyone in the conference, confronted Steratore over a call and began cussing him out. Steratore approached Ryan and told him: "Look at me. Here's how you do this."

Steratore put his left hand over his mouth: "Now you can mother-(bleep) me!"

Ryan chuckled, cursed some more. A university photographer captured the moment.

"Look how fun this is!" Steratore told Ryan. "They don't know what we're doing."

Bryce Richter / University of Wisconsin-Madison

Mackey Arena, West Lafayette, Ind., Feb. 14, one hour before tipoff

The three-man crew is in the officials' locker room preparing for Rutgers-Purdue. Steratore is stretching on a towel. Larry Scirotto is icing his right ankle. Bo Boroski is applying Flexall, a pain-relieving gel, to his legs. It smells like Bengay, which, ESPN analyst Dan Dakich jokes, "they buy in tubs."

Boroski, 41, is 6-foot-4, a former pitcher at UAB who began reffing soccer, baseball and basketball as an 11-year-old in Tifton, Ga. His payment was five bucks and "all you can eat at the concession stand," where the hot dogs were "like crayons."

His father, whom he calls "the original Bo," was a baseball umpire who taught him professionalism.

"I have Italian blood in me," he says, "so I have to shave right before every game. If I were to shave at lunch and we had overtime, I would be scruffy."

He has seen Pearl Jam perform 37 times, and before calling a game at Welsh-Ryan Arena, he quickly scans the arena in hopes of spotting Evanston native and Cubs fan Eddie Vedder.

Scirotto, 43, is a self-described "LA Fitness addict" with a beach body that would attract gawkers in Santa Monica. He works out every morning not only to hone his 32-inch waist and Mike Tyson biceps, but also to set an example at his day job.

Scirotto became a police officer in Pittsburgh at 19. He was too young to legally own a gun, so his mother kept it locked in the house overnight. He has since risen to a supervisory role as assistant chief but says, "I've been ducking bullets for 20 years that have real consequences."

Last month in Iowa City, Hawkeyes coach Fran McCaffrey got so enraged over the lack of a delay-of-game technical on Maryland, he charged toward Scirotto after the clock hit zeroes.

Scirotto was nonplussed as he exited the floor.

"Move," he told the Iowa coach. "Move."

One Big Ten coach who preferred to remain anonymous praised Scirotto as "having a good personality; he likes to crack jokes and keep it light."

Boyages wants his refs to chitchat with players and coaches before games.

"They need to see them as human," Boyages says. "If (Caleb) Swanigan finds out Larry is a cop, maybe that's something they'd talk about."

About 50 minutes before tip, six members of Purdue's game-day staff enter the room. They include a "TOC" (timeout coordinator) who communicates with a producer in the TV truck and a "tech" who serves as a replay technician.

"How 'bout the clocks, boys, any problems in the last two weeks?" Steratore asks.

Told no, Steratore delivers a pep talk: "The ego we will show on the court will only be for self-preservation. There is nothing stupid about any question you could possibly ask. We want to get it right."

Boroski examines the game ball, which varies by school depending on the apparel contract. Wisconsin uses a little-known brand from Puyallup, Wash., named Sterling, perhaps giving the Badgers a small advantage.

Before leaving for the court, one of the game-day staff members jokes to the officials: "I've never seen you guys mess up."

Steratore responds: "When I work a perfect game, I'll quit. I will never duplicate it."

Tipoff, Feb. 14

Sixteen seconds in, Scirotto blows his whistle for an unusual call. Purdue guard Carsen Edwards receives a pass after getting freed by a double screen. But Edwards stepped out of bounds while moving without the ball.

"An offensive foul down low," play-by-play man Jeff Levering says on the Big Ten Network broadcast. "Rutgers forcing an early turnover."

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Actually it's a violation, but a borderline one. Officials call this the "Gary Harris Rule" in honor of the former Michigan State guard who liked to come off screens from behind the basket, creating sharp angles to lose defenders.

But it's called only when the player is the first to receive a pass after leaving the court of his own volition. And in this case, a Rutgers defender might have nudged Edwards out.

"That's the dumbest thing," Purdue coach Matt Painter tells Boroski as he walks past.

In an interview with the Tribune the next day, Painter says: "It's not a good rule. Our guy barely went out of bounds, and one of their guys impeded his progress."

Purdue has beasts in Swanigan and Isaac Haas, and they sometimes play overlapping minutes. There's so much grappling inside, Painter says, "we can be tough to officiate."

Indeed, late in the first half, Painter hollers at Steratore: "Hold! He can't grab him, Gene."

Steratore warns Painter that Haas has to "get out" of the lane to avoid a three-second violation.

"Any time we can preventively officiate and stay out of this game," Steratore says, "we will do it."

Halftime, Feb. 14

In their locker room, Scirotto downs some chocolate-covered espresso beans. Steratore drinks a Coke and talks about his interaction with Painter.

"Getting your plays right, that's not really hard at this level if you're good enough to be here," he says. "Most of what we do is managing the game."

It's an even greater part of his football work.

"A play lasts six seconds with 20 seconds of downtime," he says. "Imagine an individual having to play so violently for six seconds and then having to be normal for 20. And then violent for six more. How do you take that emotion and keep him mentally stable in between the violence?"

Second half, Feb. 14

Before play resumes, Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell chats with Boroski, telling him he's at a loss as to how to defend Purdue's "bigs."

Boroski is cordial but does not chime in, explaining later: "When (a coach) goes down that road, we can't let our guard down. Can't give a quotable line that can be used against us later. I listen and acknowledge, but I don't agree, disagree or add my own input."

Purdue leads 35-31 with 18:35 to play. Rutgers 7-footer C.J. Gettys is defending the massive Swanigan and grinding his right forearm into Swanigan's back. The low-post defender is permitted to keep it there, but Gettys twice uses the forearm to jab. No call.

"C'mon, Bo!" Painter yells.

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Rutgers does not attempt a free throw until 37 minutes have passed, but Pikiell has no outward complaint. Purdue is the better team, and the officials have worked a smooth game.

About the only thing that goes wrong comes when Steratore tries to toss his gum into a trash can and misses. He jokingly signals for a hacking foul.

With 30 seconds to play and the clock running, Boroski notices Rutgers walk-on Jake Dadika trying to check into the game. But Rutgers has no timeouts.

Boroski asks Painter: "Hey, can I get him in?"

Painter has no vested interest but complies. A nice gesture by Painter and good awareness by Boroski.

"That's why he's Bo," Steratore says.

Postgame, Feb. 14

Boyages huddles with the officials, praising them for a clean game. Over the next 12 to 18 hours, he will grade every foul, every violation and plays when perhaps a foul or violation should have been called. Correct calls get a "1," wrong calls get a "2" and he tags 50-50 calls with a question mark.

The Big Ten logs and charts everything. Through the first 146 games, Boyages determined officials missed 620 calls, 4.24 per game. That number is down slightly over the past few seasons. The average game has 2.6 "50-50" calls.

The only clearly missed call at Purdue came when Gettys was defending Swanigan in the low post. Boyages and Boroski analyze the replay on an iPad.

Boyages: "Looks like pop … pop."

Boroski: "Is it displacement?"

Boyages: "Well, (Swanigan) is 300 pounds. So it's probably going to take more."

Boroski: "That's what I was thinking."

Boyages: "But what level of a crack is it?"

Boyages: "You can talk him through that: '32, you can use the arm bar, but don't be popping him in the back. I'm not going to call a foul because you're not moving.' But that's aggravating to a guy."

Boroski: "100 percent. Nah, you're right. I should have taken a foul on it. It's a foul."

In ref lingo, "take" a foul means "call" a foul.

Steratore and Scirotto are off to Chicago. They'll work with veteran official Mike Eades for the next night's Maryland-Northwestern game.

Boroski is off to New Jersey to work the Creighton-Seton Hall game. En route to his hotel, he says he'll lock in Channel 22 on SiriusXM — Pearl Jam Radio.

Big Ten command center, Rosemont, Feb. 15

The No. 1 complaint from Big Ten coaches about refs? They work too many games.

"They have to be tired," one said. "They work six days a week in six different cities, travel every day, run the floor with elite athletes."

"When do they recover?" another asked.

It's a valid concern.

As Steratore puts it: "We are young cars with lot of miles."

And many of them have day jobs and families. Steratore has a family business (brother Tony, also an NFL official, co-owns it) that sells janitorial supplies in Pittsburgh. As an NFL referee, he explained to America that Calvin Johnson did not "complete" that 2010 end-zone catch at Soldier Field. He also put three kids through college, debt-free.

"I single-parented for the last 17 years, ran a business and did both sports," he says. "My children used to get on an air mattress and lie in the back of a (Dodge) Durango and I'd go to New York City, ref a game and they'd sleep on the air mattress. And I'd carry them in at 5 in the morning (back in Pittsburgh), put them in the shower and get them to school. The sacrifices are immense."

But here's why guys like Steratore, who walks tilted to one side because of a strained back, work so many games: They're needed.

"Why are there only 70 guys working 100 games?" Steratore says. "You think it's because we're greedy? There's a difference between being a play-calling official and a referee who can manage the game."

Officials are independent contractors making between $1,200 and $3,000 per night depending on the competition level and their experience. They do often work four to five games a week, but Boyages has helped the profession immensely by leading the Collegiate Officiating Consortium, which assigns more than 130 officials to the Big Ten, Mid-American, Metro Atlantic, Summit and Northern Sun (Division II) conferences.

The streamlined scheduling allows Steratore — who would rather not fly — to work, say, one night in Ann Arbor, Mich., and the next in Ypsilanti. And because officials cannot expense transportation costs, they might be more prone to take a $2,000 MAC assignment than a $2,800 job on the East Coast.

"Constantly getting up at 4:30 for a 6 a.m. flight after a 9 o'clock game, maybe you can do that in your 30s and 40s," says Steratore, 54.

Boyages' top officials work no more than 35 to 38 Big Ten games each season. Rarely, if ever, will an official see the same team twice in a seven-day span.

"Familiarity is a dangerous thing," Steratore says. "Even if you are my brother, we'll have to go to a different bathroom to shave every once in a while."

The West Lafayette/Evanston back-to-back makes for easy travel for Steratore and Scirotto, who meet Boyages at the Big Ten command center to review plays and grab lunch. Upon returning to Chicago the previous night at 11, Boyages talked them into late-night burgers at Au Cheval.

"We can't hang out with Rick," Scirotto says. "I'd have to go to the gym three times a day."

Lunch, Park Tavern, Rosemont, Feb. 15

Ex-coaches love telling stories. Here's one: Before shifting to administration, Boyages toiled as a coach at William & Mary, which has never made the NCAA tournament. He got so enraged at the officiating during a 2001 game at East Carolina, he pointed to different spots on the floor and shouted: "Foul! Foul! Foul!"

Mike Eades responded by giving Boyages the heave-ho.

Now Boyages determines which Big Ten games Eades will work. One is on this night in Evanston with Steratore and Scirotto.

"Glad Rick had a change of heart about me," Eades said, grinning.

Eades, primarily an ACC ref, is a fixture at North Carolina-Duke battles and has worked two of the last four Final Fours.

All that is nice, Eades said, but "if they're keeping score, it's a big game."

Eades, 51, lives in West Virginia, where he works with at-risk youth. In his younger days, according to Boyages, Eades wore tight shirts to show off his physique and moussed his hair.

"Confirmed," Eades responds.

Last month at the Iowa-Michigan State game, Eades' whistle broke off its lanyard. He searched his pockets for a backup as if hunting for car keys. After coming up dry, he had to jog back to the officials' locker room.

"Mike," Iowa assistant coach Kirk Speraw kidded him, "you refereed a whole lot better when you did not have the whistle."

Tipoff, Welsh-Ryan Arena, Evanston, Feb. 15

"It's going to be a hot one tonight," Steratore tells Scirotto and Eades before popping in a stick of Juicy Fruit and heading to the floor.

He means that literally and figuratively. Welsh-Ryan Arena is four games from being gutted. With the crowd near capacity, it can get steamy.

"The sidelines are tight," Steratore says.

So are the coaches. This is a huge game for Northwestern's Chris Collins and Maryland's Mark Turgeon. Steratore says he expects them to be "wound up."

Northwestern plays a crummy first half, in part because do-everything point guard Bryant McIntosh exits after getting whistled for two fouls in the first three minutes — bumping Anthony Cowan on a drive and colliding with a rebounder.

With 4:28 to play in the half, Steratore rings him up again, ruling that McIntosh drove his right shoulder into a defender before shooting a short jumper. Collins barks a bit. Northwestern trails 32-22 at the break.

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Halftime, Feb. 15

While the crowd is transfixed by the bowl-tossing acrobatics of Red Panda, Boyages lingers at the scoring table to use the DVSport system to check out replays of about a dozen calls and non-calls. He wants to be prepared for his postgame session.

Boyages checks to see whether NU forward Gavin Skelly got held going after a loose ball. Not really, he decides. A valid non-call. He also scrutinizes a play that occurred three minutes into the game — Wildcats center Dererk Pardon bodying up Damonte Dodd on a missed shot in the paint.

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Boyages studies McIntosh's third foul, saying: "It's a judgment call. Gene is in great position."

Second half, Feb. 15

Melo Trimble looks like a lottery pick. In the midst of a 32-point game, the Maryland point guard surges past Pardon for a layup and briefly glares at Scirotto. Trimble, whom Steratore has praised for being fair and easy to converse with, wanted an "and one" call.

Next time down, Scirotto tells Trimble: "I know you don't complain. I'll watch it better."

They low-five.

A frustrated Vic Law commits an obvious over-the-back foul and complains a bit to Scirotto, who tells the NU forward: "Vic, that's a foul, bud."

As Scirotto puts it later: "It's never, 'Shut up, kid, and play basketball.' We interact without being defensive."

Steratore tells young officials to be unafraid to engage players and coaches. Don't do it "when the fire is too hot," he tells them. "Wait till the water is good."

Maryland leads by 12 with about five minutes to play, but Turgeon is barking at Steratore. He wanted a timeout called once the Terrapins crossed halfcourt, but coaches can't call for time during live-ball situations. Trimble twice called for time with the ball in the backcourt.

"Mark said, 'What the hell are you doing?'" Steratore says. "Whoa. He says, 'You know what I wanted.' I tell him, 'Well, I'm not playing for you.'"

Postgame, Feb. 15

A shower runs near the officials' cramped locker room at Welsh-Ryan. But before getting clean, the refs will spend nearly 30 minutes reviewing plays with Boyages, who praises their work.

"You guys did a really good job — great job on offense-initiated contact all night long," he says. "Any time a guard jumped in (to a defender), you were consistent laying off (the call)."

Boyages had warned the officials before the game about a Maryland freshman who has tricked refs by locking arms with a defender and making it appear he was getting obstructed.

"A lot of us work multiple conferences," Steratore says. "Nobody else in college basketball preps us like this. Nobody."

But with about two minutes to play, Steratore whistled NU guard Isiah Brown for a foul on an inbound play. Brown couldn't believe it, motioning that Cowan, the freshman guard, had hooked him.

"Heads-up play by Cowan to draw that foul," analyst Stephen Bardo said on the BTN telecast.

Indeed it was. Chatting with his fellow officials, Steratore says he was duped.

Here's what he told Cowan on the floor: "You got me. Don't be defensive. Don't act like you're innocent. You got me. ... But you could have missed the dang front end (of the one-and-one free throw) so I wouldn't feel so bad."

Steratore smiles. He wasn't perfect.

You know what that means? He's not about to quit.

tgreenstein@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @TeddyGreenstein

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