Tuck: Coaches Too Conservative With Foul Trouble

In sports, there is a winner and loser.  Always.  Like decisions we make in life, we win some, and we inevitably will lose some.

Ohio State coach Thad Matta made the decision to bench Jared Sullinger for the majority (14 minutes) of the first half in the Buckeyes win over Syracuse in the regional final.  It worked.  They played to a halftime tie, and the Buckeyes kept Sullinger on the floor for the entire second half.  I think he played it by the book.  Most coaches in that position with a key player picking up 2 early fouls would sit.  But I thought it was a mistake.

So when Deshaun Thomas picked up his 3rd foul with 17:34 to go, he sat.  He’d come back in and pick up his 4th foul with 11:30 to play with the Buckeyes up 43-40.  He’d sit again…until the 4 minute mark.

Too many coaches are afraid of players fouling out.  What does it matter if you have to play the last four minutes without him if you are planning on playing the “next” seven minutes without him?  You are punishing yourself.  Say “don’t foul” and take your chances.  The better the player, the more willing you should be to risk it.

I would have put Thomas back in with 8 minutes to play.  Kansas cut the Buckeye lead down to one and Ohio State took a timeout.  He is too important and not having him on the floor was showing with the Ohio State offense struggling.  They scored 12 points in the time he was off the floor.  By the time he came back in, he looked cold.  He was having an off-night even before the foul trouble, but looked out of sync upon returning to the game and having to sit for so long.

I am not attempting to slam Matta, although I am sure many Buckeyes fans will probably applaud this article.  I am simply giving my opinion that coaches in this situation are far too conservative attempting to protect a player from fouling out.

The problem I have is while you are doing your best to make sure the player is available to play, you are subjecting yourself to too much time without him!  Thomas played only 23 minutes against Kansas.  He typically would have played the entire game, or close to it.  It’s impossible to differentiate what minutes will actually be more important in dictating the outcome of the game.  It’s also impossible to know if he would have fouled out if he had played.  Could Thomas have fouled out one minute on the floor had he been reinserted earlier or never taken out?  Sure.  Could have played without fouling for the remainder of the game?  Sure.  He played the last 4 minutes without fouling, right?

In the end, I think teams punish themselves more than helping themselves in these foul trouble situations.  In a NBA game, just because a player picks up 2 fouls in the first 3 minutes, shouldn’t mean he sits the rest of the quarter.  And if he gets his 3rd foul a minute into the second, he doesn’t have to sit out the rest of the half.  But coaches just feel more comfortable doing what is expected and accepted.

You got to know your player and your opponent, and above all, the stakes the game is being played at.

You play to win.  There are only two options.  Winning and losing.  If Deshaun Thomas hasn’t fouled out of a game all year, then buy your time, make sure he is fresh when he is in there, remind him constantly of the foul issue, and let him help you win.  He can’t do that on the bench, whether it’s with 4 fouls or 5 fouls.