Last night was Syracuse versus Georgetown in basketball, which is THE great historical rivalry in the Big East– these are the teams that made the league great in the 80′s, and while the Hoyas had a down stretch in the late 90′s/ early 2000′s, they’re good again, so it’s a huge game. Because of that, even though I’m usually the one to put SteelyKid to bed at night, Kate took her so I could watch the game.

So, of course, Syracuse lost. In the most annoying fashion possible, too: they had a small but consistent 4-6 point lead for a big chunk of the second half, and then right after SteelyKid went up to bed, they gave up the lead at the 4-minute mark. So, basically, I inconvenienced Kate so as to be frustrated by a bad loss. This is depressingly typical.

What happened that cost them the game? The problem was foul trouble.

That’s not what it will look like in the box score, mind– both teams had the same number of fouls, and nobody fouled out. But that was the ultimate cause. Specifically, Rick Jackson’s foul trouble,

Jackson picked up his fourth foul with something like 13 minutes to go in the game, and went to the bench. While he was out, Syracuse rotated a bunch of freshmen through the big guy spots– Fab Melo, Baye Moussa Keita, C.J. Fair– and they built and maintained their small lead. Jackson came back into the game right before the collapse.

So how did getting their best big guy back cause them to fold? If you watch the game, the killer baskets that put Georgetown ahead to stay were all easy lay-ups along the baseline, right behind the back line of the zone, where Jackson plays. This was made possible because Jackson had sat out the previous eight minutes, and thus was playing tentatively– he didn’t want to pick up his fifth, so he didn’t challenge the lay-ups, and didn’t even come up that hard on the center when Georgetown passed into the middle of the zone. That passivity let Georgetown’s big guys distribute the ball efficiently, and get a bunch of easy baskets to win the game.

Throw in some classically boneheaded plays from the guards, forcing up long jumpers that they didn’t need– there was plenty of time left– and don’t hit particularly well when there’s no pressure, and you have the makings of a dispiriting collapse.

It doesn’t get as much press as the “you should always go for it on fourth down” analysis in football, but I have seen occasional mentions of a school of thought that holds it’s a bad idea to pull your top players when they get a couple of fouls. The logic is that you are depriving yourself of their play during the time that they’re on the bench, and that this excess of caution is bad for your overall productivity. To which I would add that too much sensitivity to fouls leads some of those players to be overly cautious when they get a few fouls, and hurts their productivity even when they’re on the court.

Last night was pretty much a case study for this effect.

Comments

  1. #1 Excited State
    February 10, 2011

    A lot of statistical analysts have called out coaches for being too conservative in benching players for foul trouble, as you say.

    However, there has been some recent research agreeing with your analysis that players play worse when they are in foul trouble: http://www.basketballprospectus.com/unfiltered/?p=615

    They suggest an optimal (NBA) strategy of benching players when they have more fouls than the current quarter.

  2. #2 Clam
    February 17, 2011

    I’ve never understood the appeal of a game that gives scores like 89 – 90. Take it in turns to score and pure chance delivers an error?
    Mind you, I expect you can’t understand a game like Test Cricket that takes five days to play, has no advertising breaks, and often comes to an inconclusive result!