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Foul trouble and risk aversion during the 2018 ACC basketball season

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Some coaches were a lot more willing than others to keep players in foul trouble on the floor.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Midwest Regional-Syracuse vs Duke Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Foul trouble is scary—but exactly how scary depends on who you ask. As it turns out, some college basketball coaches treat players in foul trouble like they have a very-short lived plague of some kind; others, perhaps partly out of necessity, are more inclined to gamble. We got the whole spectrum from the ACC’s coaches last season.

Courtesy of KenPom.com, here’s how each ACC school stacked up in “2-Foul Participation,” as Ken puts it. This is the percentage of possible minutes that a starter with two fouls plays during the first half of a game. (More explanation here.)

For example: if a starter picks up a foul with 15 minutes left in the half and plays three minutes the rest of the way, his 2-foul participation percentage is 20.0. Which is also roughly the national average at the team level.

The 2018 ACC In Foul Trouble

Team 2-Foul Participation Pct. 2-Foul Pct. Rank Bench Min. Pct. Bench Pct. Rank
Team 2-Foul Participation Pct. 2-Foul Pct. Rank Bench Min. Pct. Bench Pct. Rank
Syracuse 58.3 3 15.8 351
Georgia Tech 54.8 4 30.1 210
Duke 41.5 20 22.3 341
Pittsburgh 41.3 21 35.2 79
Boston College 40.3 23 16.8 350
Notre Dame 38.2 31 28.8 242
UNC 31.4 61 27.3 277
NATIONAL AVG 20.1 n/a 31.5 n/a
NC State 20.0 150 30.1 209
Clemson 15.8 196 29.0 234
Wake Forest 10.2 253 35.5 69
Virginia Tech 8.6 280 32.0 169
Florida State 4.6 323 34.3 99
Louisville 4.6 322 31.1 192
Virginia 3.8 331 29.0 237
Miami 1.2 346 33.8 113

Jim Boeheim cares not for your “fouls,” and in fact he cannot care, for his team has 0.2 bench players. (I counted.)

I included bench minutes in this table as well just to give you an idea of what each school was working with (or thought it was working with). Syracuse and Duke both threw caution to the wind when it came to playing guys with foul trouble, but also neither team had much depth to speak of. It’s easier to justify keeping your starters on the floor when you look down the bench and see ... oh hey, there’s Walk-on Johnny smiling and waving awkwardly! Hey, Johnny! [muttering under breath] God I hate that guy.

It’s hard to draw a lot of conclusions based simply on a bench minutes comparison, though, since there’s a little chicken-and-egg action at work here. Obviously not in Syracuse’s case, mind you, but further from the extremes it becomes more difficult to discern the relationship between two-foul participation and bench minutes.

This is more fun as a profile in how coaches think. Jim Larranaga was confident in the depth on his roster last season, but even so, if you got two fouls in the first half, son you might as well be in jail. When his starters picked up a second foul during the first half last year, they were pretty much done until halftime. Only five schools were more substantial foul-trouble shunners.

On the other end, you have Pittsburgh, which maintained a consistent philosophy of “well let’s just play a lot of guys regardless of whatever because they all suck anyhow so who cares.” Say what you will about Kevin Stallings, but that was the correct approach.

Tony Bennett is naturally risk-averse, and he was extremely risk-averse when it came to handling foul trouble last season. He could also afford to do this, because he had a better team than 98% of the opponents he had to deal with. You do not need to take a lot of risks when you have the demonstrably better team.

With that said, Tony Bennett also puts on three layers of oven mitts before he hits the preheat button.

If you played for Notre Dame or UNC last season, you were in the trust tree. Neither team ran deep, but they weren’t so thin that sheer necessity dicatated a lot of on-court minutes for starters in foul trouble. But both teams were flexible about foul trouble, and both teams happened to rely heavily on juniors and seniors, who can get a little more leeway from coaches on things like this.

NC State, meanwhile, existed everywhere and nowhere, neither here nor there, and so in other words these are standard NC State numbers.