Just the thought of refereeing a high-stakes basketball game may bring anxious beads of sweat to some foreheads. The bigger they are, the harder to call, right? Actually, Hank Nichols has found the opposite to be true during a long career officiating at the major-college level. ``When you're refereeing top-quality players, most of those guys will not do dumb things, either by instinct, brains, or because of coaching,'' says Dr. Nichols, chairman of the Department of Education and Human Services at Villanova University. ``But with teams of less talent, players sometimes try to do things they can't do or do just the opposite of what you think [they'll do].'' And being able to anticipate is critical to being a basketball referee, he says.

As the NCAA's national coordinator of men's basketball officiating, Nichols, now retired from on-court duty, oversees the refereeing of the 64-team postseason tournament. He recently shared with the Monitor his insights on some of the less-noticed facets of the game:

On individual efforts: ``Great players can often snatch a loose ball without having to dive for it; they have the quick hands to dribble it out of a crowd. They have the quickness to block shots without fouling.''

Spacing of players: ``This has always been important, but with the three-point shot it's even a bigger factor. If you can keep three-point shooters spaced around the three-point line, you open up the inside for passes to the big guys.''

Strategic execution: ``You see a chess match in most games that are competitive - one move here, one move there.'' Among the tactical gems Nichols has witnessed are the 1983 NCAA final, in which North Carolina State enlisted ``foul for profit'' tactics to upset Houston's ``Phi Slama Jamma'' dunk masters.

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