Tuesday, March 13, 2012

NCAA tournament, what to watch for

A few years ago Gregg Easterbrook in his Tuesday Morning Quarterback column suggested that the area that NFL teams got wrong most consistently was that they punted too often.  In a similar vein I’ve been watching college basketball for years convinced that the way coaches handle players in foul trouble is horrifically misguided.  Indeed, just by observation you would think a fifth foul doesn’t eliminate the player who commits it but leads to an automatic forfeiture of the game. 

I will concede that not having your better players available at the end of the game is a significant penalty and that the last few minutes of a game have a higher value than the other minutes.  But I’m convinced that coaches lose more time for their players by trying to keep them from fouling than they would give up if they just let them play.  Current coaching practice seems to be that a player sits after his second foul in the first for the remainder of the half, they may get benched again if they pick up a third foul at the beginning of the second half, and unquestionably they will be taken out after their fourth foul, usually until the last few minutes of the game.

If this year is like past years, you are very likely to watch a NCAA tournament game where a team with the lead, loses that lead because their best player is on the bench so that he doesn’t foul out of the game.  Compounding the mistake, the team(s) that lose this way will often be heavy underdogs where you would think to win they should be taking more not less chances.

Following this cautious strategy makes even less sense for established teams during the regular season.  The penalty for losing a game or two just isn’t that great anymore.  So why not prepare for the tournament?  Why not have players learn how to play through foul trouble, and if they do foul out, have your team learn how to cope without them?

In any event that’s what I’ll be paying attention to during the tournament.  You watch, some team will lose because their coach had a key player riding the pines so that he didn’t foul out.  As currently coached, college teams impose a greater penalty on themselves for fouls than the officials.

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