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When does Foul Trouble Turn into More Trouble? A Look at Mike Scott's Game against North Carolina

If you ask a UVA fan to cite reasons why the Hoos fell at UNC on Saturday, a top response will assuredly be "foul trouble." After all, Mike Scott picked up his second foul with 9:10 to go in the first half and sat until halftime. He then was called for a third on a questionable call 3 minutes into the second half and returned to the bench. With the team's best player forced to the bench for an extended period against one of the best teams in the nation, how could Virginia be expected to compete?

That said, it is important to note that foul trouble doesn't actually force a player to the bench. Rather, foul trouble simply increases the probability that a given player may eventually reach 5 fouls, which would actually do so. Instead, it was Tony Bennett who chose to sit Mike Scott. This practice has been a common practice for Bennett, as well as most coaches, who are conservative by nature and unwilling to expose their players to the risk of committing 5 fouls, thus missing the critical conclusion. (Mike Scott played the end of the game and would finish with 3 fouls).

If a coach's goal was simply to maximize a star's playing time, he would obviously just allow things to play out, regardless of the foul situation. However, Bennett and Co. also want their players to be available to make the highest impact possible in those minutes. Because the last few minutes of a basketball game are generally "high-leverage" compared to a few minutes late in the first-half, coaches trade a decrease in expected overall minutes for what they hope are more effective ones.

In the case of Mike Scott against UNC, I was disappointed that Tony Bennett followed conventional wisdom in sitting Scott for such an extended period. This morning, Twitter follower @rmj_equals_hero returned to this point, questioning why a player MUST sit when he picks up his second foul. Ben pointed out two important factors specific to Scott that further support this assertion:

First, Mike is not foul prone in general. On the year, he averages just 2.2 fouls per 40 minutes played. Thus, despite the 2 quick fouls, it remained unlikely that Scott would end up fouling out later in the game. Especially because Mike Scott is a veteran with excellent situational awareness, he could have played through the trouble.

Secondly, Mike Scott is simply too important to the team to not play. If Akil Mitchell gains two fouls, it may be worth it to bench him early in favor of Darion Atkins, say, so he could impact the game later. However, UVA does not have anyone that could come close to replacing a player of Mike's caliber. Every minute played without him on the floor is a liability for the team. Especially when playing on a top-5 team's home floor, Bennett needs his best player on the court.

Unsurprisingly, we are not the first people to consider this pattern and its potential pitfalls. Though I would argue that the case of Mike Scott was a special circumstance, Ken Pomeroy, everyone's favorite Hokie, takes the coach's side in the general situation. The following quote may be useful, as he lays out the concept of "leverage," describing how different moments of the game have different amount of importance in his analysis.

It's difficult to defend that all points are worth the same. Let's consider the 2010 title game. With 18:23 to go in the first half, Butler's Ronald Nored missed a three-point attempt. Butler, memorably, would lose the game by two points. If that attempt had gone in, would the Bulldogs have won the game?

The correct answer is "I don't know". From Butler's perspective, it would have been nice to have those three points. But then the rest of the game may have played out differently. Remember that Duke had a cushion in the waning minutes. If that cushion was reduced, they may not have milked every last second out of the shot clock on multiple possessions, trying harder to score points rather than limit possessions. Win probability calculations indicate that a Nored make in that spot would have increased Butler's chances of winning by about 2.5%. Not insignificant, for sure, but not a game-deciding shot either.

He cites multiple studies that consider the situation (and support maximizing plaer minutes), and I'll let you plod through them. In doing so, do keep in mind the 2 special factors that @rmj_equals_hero emphasized - Mike Scott doesn't commit fouls often and he is not replaceable by other players.

To sum up, I practically (and almost literally) worship Tony Bennett, so its extremely difficult for me to find fault with anything he ever does. Reading that over, I apologize for that sentence but still refuse to change it. On the other hand, I hate when "conventional wisdom" negatively affects coaching strategy in sports, and I believe this is one of those times. What are everyone's thoughts?