There is some schadenfreude here for college basketball fans who have come to loathe John Higgins, a referee with frosted tips and a quick whistle. Higgins has been taken off the Final Four on account of a misattributed free throw at the end of a first-round game between College of Charleston and Auburn.
It was a clear and significant error. With Auburn leading 61-58 in the final seconds, College of Charleston committed a foul. The referees sent Auburn’s Jared Harper (an 82 percent foul shooter) to the line when in fact the player who had been fouled was Chuma Okeke (69 percent). It’s a big mistake that could have affected the outcome of the game. Except here’s the thing.
Higgins wasn’t involved in the call.
Higgins wasn’t even on the floor. He was the alternate on that crew and not involved in the call in any way. Theoretically, he could have sprung up off the ref bench and alerted the guys on the floor to their error, but he was not, himself, refereeing the game and therefore not responsible for the decisions of those who were.
You would think.
The NCAA evidently does not agree.
This has been a brutal year for Higgins. He worked Kentucky’s loss to North Carolina in the regional final last year, and in October filed suit against a Kentucky radio station for inciting fans to harass him. UK coach John Calipari also had criticized the officiating after the game.
In his suit, John Higgins blamed Kentucky Sports Radio for helping incite death threats that frightened him and his family and defamatory messages on social media and in phone messages that disrupted his roofing business in suburban Omaha. The harassment came after Higgins worked Kentucky’s loss to the eventual champion Tar Heels in a regional final.
Say what you will about Higgins’ officiating — he involves himself in games a little too much for my taste — he doesn’t deserve any of this. Well, except for the jokes about the hair. That’s fair game.
But the rest of it is not only unfair to Higgins, it makes too much of a public figure out of someone whose role is to quietly facilitate. A public acknowledgment by the NCAA of an important missed call is appropriate, but there seems to be a need to take retribution against someone, and apparently anybody will do.
If John Higgins was good enough to ref the Final Four before one of his coworkers screwed up a call, he’s still good enough to ref the Final Four now, though I don’t foresee many fans leaping to his defense.