Official Impact: John Higgins’ officiating crew’s “effect” on Big 12 basketball

Photo by Nick Gerhardt

In his time as a marquee Big 12 referee, official John Higgins has slowly amassed a reputation—especially with Mizzou Arena ticket-holders—for an anti-Tiger mindset.

Looking back, including Thursday’s game between Mizzou and Texas A&M, Higgins and his crew have a knack for whistling the team at seemingly the most inopportune times. By the numbers, though, his crew tends to tag Mizzou opponents with more personal fouls.

So why do Missouri fans boo the loudest when John Higgins brings his perfectly-parted hair to Columbia? In short, team Higgins blows the whistle far more often than the average Big 12 officiating squad. Mizzou plays fast and aggressive.  A low-tolerance contact policy unravels head coach Mike Anderson’s game plan faster than A&M’s David Loubeau or KU’s Morris brothers ever could.

Mizzou wins basketball games with free throws and opportune scoring runs. This year’s Tiger team ranks second in the Big 12 in free throw percentage behind Colorado. Because of Mizzou’s regressed defensive efficiency from last year, that statistic does not necessarily translate into victories. Even a high percentage free throw shooter stands a better shot of scoring ten points with ten shot attempts than with ten free throws. Mizzou succeeds by creating offensive opportunities with strong defensive play: turnovers and rebounds.

When an officiating crew calls a tight game, as the Higgins crew usually does, a player must adjust their individual defensive strategy. Former Tigers JT Tiller, Zaire Taylor, and DeMarre Carroll excelled on “D” by switching up their tactics based on how the officials called the game. This year’s team appears far more vulnerable, because their ability to create defensive momentum is so one-dimensional that a few close calls handicap the helter-skelter advantage of the “Fastest 40 Minutes in Basketball.”

Higgins officiated the semifinal contest between the Colorado Buffaloes and Kansas Jayhawks at the men’s Big 12 Championship in Kansas City on Friday. The pattern did not deviate often from the typical MU prime-time contest.

  • In the first seven minutes, Higgins and company called ten fouls, with some semblance of contact in each one. Fans starting to belch boos after every whistle.
  • 19 fouls in the first half–10 for Colorado, nine for Kansas.
  • With about 15 minutes remaining in regulation, Brady Morningstar plowed into the CU defender. The crew let play continue.
  • Just under 10 minutes in regulation: KU freshman point guard Josh Selby brushes his man on defense and draws the foul call. Fan behind us yells “let them play!” 12 fouls called in the second half to this point.
  • Shortly after the Selby call, Kansas head coach Bill Self calls a timeout and tears into John Higgins. Colorado follows with a solid defensive set, culminating in a defensive rebound after two Selby misfires. “Where’s the foul? That’s a foul…” screams that same fan.
  • 6:09 remaining: Great no call as KU forward Markieff Morris misses a layup trying to create contact with CU defender Marcus Relphorde. Laurence Bowers drew a foul call on an almost identical play against A&M; Relphorde kept his hands straight up, Bowers tried to swat at the ball.
  • 1:00 remaining: 16 fouls called in the second half before garbage time/the intentionals set in.
  • 0:30.2 Excluding the intentionals, neither team cracks double digit fouls in the second half. KU with eight, Colorado with 10.

Where does the line fall between overly active officiating and overly aggressive defense resulting in whistles? If an official sees illegal contact, he is duty-bound to blow the whistle. At times, they make mistakes, but consider this: after Missouri’s defeat to Kansas at home to close out regular season play, this journalist tried to assemble video footage of all the poor foul calls as witnessed from court-level. As coaches across the NCAA likely discovered upon further review, most of the time the stripes make the correct call .

For Mizzou fans out there, judging the “fairness” of a call against the team for whom one has rooted their entire life is nearly impossible. From press row at the Big 12 Championship, however, Higgins and company call a tight game, but a fair one. The onus falls on the team and coach to find a way to win.

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