As I sit watching Kansas close in on what could be an 11th straight conference title in the Big 12, I have to admire the consistency and stability of the Kansas program and of its head coach, Bill Self. His ability to churn out great team after great team, through all the turnover that having an elite college program entails, is nothing short of remarkable.
I do, however, have some general, overall philosophical qualms with the way that Self manages his teams during games. One of these qualms is something that I share with nearly every college coach in America, and that's how he handles foul trouble.
In 2010, The Leisure of Theory Class published this piece with some of the ideas I'm about to discuss; I encourage you to read this, but I don't feel too bad about using these same ideas, as quite honestly, I'm just thanking someone for finally putting common sense into words on this matter. While this piece predominantly discusses the same phenomenon in the NBA, it works just the same, or even better, for college basketball.
The money quote from this piece: "The direct effect of fouling out actually has less impact than the indirect effect of 'foul trouble.'"
Coaches panic at the thought of the guys they trust being taken away from them. When Perry Ellis picks up his 2nd foul just a few minutes into the game, Self benches him. It doesn't matter if the gameplan from the start of the game was clearly to maximize what they perceived to be a mismatch with Ellis in the post. It no longer matters that Ellis was in a groove from the start of the game, scoring with excellent touch and outclassing the defense. Why? Because the coach becomes afraid that his player might get 3 more fouls over the remaining 36+ possible minutes of the game.
The problem with this philosophy is mind-numbingly simple, when you think about it: you're severely limiting the minutes your best players could potentially play during the basketball game. Self worried about foul trouble against TCU in more ways than just with Ellis; by the end of the first half, all his rotation big men had 2 fouls. Kansas was running with bizarre lineups, some of which had all of the worst scholarship players on KU's team. The result? Instead of putting TCU away early, Kansas once again allowed their opponent to hang around while competing against the bottom of the bench.
I propose a solution that would make Bill Self, and really most coaches, better in-game managers: Disregard foul trouble. What happened by overreacting to fouls in the first half? The rest of the game played out strangely, good players were taken out of a rhythm, and the minutes for KU's big men ended in this cluster**** arrangement:
Landen Lucas: 24 minutes
Jamari Traylor: 19 minutes
Perry Ellis: 16 minutes
Cliff Alexander: 14 minutes
Hunter Mickelson: 8 minutes
Why? Why, in the name of the holy basketball gods, would you subject your team to this minutes allocation? Sure, Lucas was fine, and Self probably disliked Cliff's "motor" again or something, but you absolutely cannot look at this minutes arrangement and tell me that it gives KU the best chance to win games.
Back to the solution: When early fouls present themselves, just play your rotation the way you would normally play it. Give your best players the most minutes you possibly can, and worry about the consequences later if one or more of your great players actually does foul out.
An obvious counterpoint, and one I'm sure Self would bring up if he saw this post, is that he wants the guys he trusts to be available at the end of games. The problem with this is twofold: first, I'm not entirely convinced that the last 3 minutes of the second half are actually more important than a middle stretch of the first half, provided context. Second, if you play your best players early and often while ignoring the possibility that they might foul out later, the end of the game might be well in-hand and already irrelevant. Saving your best players by stashing them on the bench in the first half only serves to accomplish one tangible thing: it allows your opponent to stay in the game by battling lesser talent at the bottom of your bench, during a key moment in determining the contest's outcome.
Would it suck if a great player fouled out early in a game where you really need him down the stretch? Absolutely. But you know what sucks more? Intentionally limiting the number of minutes your best players could possibly play because you're afraid they might be taken away from you later. Let your best players play the most possible minutes. When they're tired, take them out. When you need to coach them and teach them from their mistakes they just made, take them out. When you're annoyed with your talented big man's "motor," fine, take him out and punish him if you must. But do not let fouls force your hand in playing inferior players during key junctures of games. Odds are, they probably won't foul out (though in this case, Ellis did), and you're just hurting your team by not giving your best players the chance to play through it.
It's not rocket science. It's not some mind-blowing, analytics concept. This is common sense. Maximize your team's chances to win a 40 minute basketball game by playing the best players the most minutes you can.
And for goodness sake, will Self just start Cliff Alexander already and let him play through his mistakes?