One of the most polarizing debates when it comes to college basketball strategy is what a coach should do with a player that has picked up two fouls in the first half of a game.
And there really is no easy answer.
On the one hand, these are college kids we’re talking about. They’re 19, 20, 21 years old. They’re not seasoned veterans. They’re going to make mistakes. They’re going to commit fouls. As a coach, do you really want to risk an important player picking up an early third foul, particularly when that player only gets five fouls to begin with? Three fouls in the first half means that the kid is one foul away from having to play totally passive on the defensive end of the floor.
As long as the score is still close and your bench guys are doing their jobs, it’s not necessarily wrong to try and ride out the first half to ensure your best players will be on the floor in crunch time. I get that line of thinking.
I also understand — and, to a degree, agree more with — putting your players back in the game with two first half fouls. There’s something to be said for trusting your players to avoid fouls, particularly if they are of the veteran variety, and while I’m not totally bought into the analytics perspective here — i.e. the tenth minute being just as important as the final minute — I do think that it’s silly to risk digging yourself a hole you can’t get out of just so you have a shot at making a late comeback.
And it should come as no surprise that Jim Boeheim tops the list for high-major head coaches; he’s fourth overall, as players with two fouls were on the floor for 49.1 percent of the possible first half minutes over the past seven seasons. The Orange play a zone. That makes them less foul-prone, which makes it less risky to use a guy with two fouls that early.
Boeheim isn’t the only legend whose name is at the top of this list: Sean Miller is 32nd, Roy Williams is 39th and Coach K is 43rd. Other notable names in the top 50: Bryce Drew (15), Mike Brey (17), Lorenzo Romar (22), Josh Pastner (42).
But there are some sensational coaches at the bottom end of this list as well. On average, Virginia’s Tony Bennett (who ranks 305th out of 321 active coaches with at least one season of experience since 2009) has played a player with two first half fouls for less than 15 total minutes in the last seven season. Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall (312) has played a kid with two first half fouls for a total of 16 minutes while Archie Miller (304) averaged a total of 20 minutes in his five years at the helm of Dayton, and those are arguably the three most in-demand young coaches in the business. They will never do it unless they have to. The same goes for Rick Pitino (261), Lon Kruger (263), Will Wade (277), Larry Krystkowiak (284), Ben Jacobsen (285), Tom Izzo (294) and John Beilein (308).
What’s really interesting here is to see the differences in opinion among family, both coaching and otherwise. Archie and Sean Miller are brothers, but they totally differ in how they use players with two first half fouls. Archie never does. Sean does quite a bit.
Then take a look at Coach K’s coaching tree. Brey (17) and Steve Wojciechowski (50) are on the same page as K in terms of how to use a player with two first half fouls. Chris Collins (93) and Tommy Amaker (96) are both top 100 on this list, while Johnny Dawkins (155) is barely in the top half.
Anyway, it’s a fun little exercise worth looking at.