The Chicken or the Egg. Georgetown and Fouling.

Joshua_Smith_2013

In May of 2013, the NCAA Men’s Basketball Rules Committee came together to push for a change in a game that had become too physical, and at times, too ugly to watch.

From NCAA.com :

With these facts in mind, much of the committee’s discussion in May focused on ways to open up the game. To that end, it will be stressed to officials that they must address the current rules throughout the game. The following types of personal fouls should be called consistently:
• When a defensive player keeps a hand or forearm on an opponent
• When a defensive player puts two hands on an opponent
• When a defensive player continually jabs by extending his arm(s) and placing a hand or forearm on the opponent
• When a player uses an arm bar to impede the progress of an opponent

Most Georgetown fans (including this one) found the news to be positive and finally a benefit for a free flowing offensive system predicated on space and timing. No more of the Pitt’s and West Virginia’s of the world clutching and grabbing for 40 minutes.

While the offensive efficiency in 2013-2014 (111.8) and 2014-2015 (111.1) were upticks from the 2013, 2012 and 2011 seasons – it begged the question if the emphasis on freedom of movement had impacted a physical Georgetown defense more than anticipated. While John Thompson III’s teams will not be mistaken for his father’s and does not employ full court pressure – if anything we see token zone press from time to time – the Hoyas do play a very physical brand of half court man to man defense.

Along with a change in officiating (one I don’t fully buy, more on that later) came new players into the program or players stepping into bigger roles who proved to be serial foulers (Josh Smith, Mikael Hopkins, Moses Ayegba…and even as perimeter players, Jabril Trawick and Aaron Bowen).

JTIII has coached roughly 87 rotation players over the course of 11 seasons.

Here’s the list with the year and foul rate: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1R0dCAQP9k-STP0eHfodNzNOca7tTARUrqq4ZabbZs18/edit?usp=sharing 

As you can see, there was a whole lot of fouling going on in the 2014 and 2015 seasons. Georgetown’s defensive free throw rate (a measure of both how often a team gets to the line and how often they make them) had never been higher than 36 in JTIII’s tenure (2011). In 2013-2014 it skyrocketed to 52.4 and in 2014-2015 netted a mark of 44.1 via kenpom.com 

The 2014 version of the Hoyas defense was a mess. Personnel had weakened, injuries occurred and it was going to be bad no matter how you sliced it. The 2015 group was good, and could have been much better without fouling so much. The Hoyas ranked 24th nationally in defending shots from within the 3pt line and 7th nationally in defending shots at the rim. The 3pt defense did not hold up well – but as many have studied, there is a lot of luck involved in 3pt defense. Had you substituted the amount of fouling Georgetown did in 2015 with a standard pre-2013-2014 season under JTIII, the Hoyas defense jumps into Top 10-20 territory nationally.

…Back to the list of players:

Josh Smith in his two seasons had the 3rd and 4th highest foul rates of any player in the III era.

Mikael Hopkins had the 6th, 7th and 9th highest marks during his tenure.

Even Jabril and Aaron had higher foul rates in both 2014 and 2015 than Henry Sims did in anchoring the stout 2012 defense.

The good news heading into this season is that D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera, LJ Peak, Isaac Copeland Tre Campbell posted good marks for their respective positions. A lot will come down to how Jessie Govan, Bradley Hayes and Akoy Agau adjust to the defensive system, speed of the game and if they are able to protect the rim without fouling. I suspect that just the change in personnel will result in a decline in fouls. While Mikael and Josh served as good rim protectors there is no denying their penchant for fouling. It also could be beneficial to see the use of zone again – which benefited past teams and players from picking up fouls.

In looking for other examples around the Big East – the hacking Cats of Villanova actually just posted their lowest defensive foul rate in 14 years under Jay Wright. (1. Maybe because they didn’t have to spend the 2nd half of games trailing and fouling. 2. 14 years already?). Butler and the ‘Butler Way’ of grabbing and holding posted their 6th and 7th lowest marks in 8 years since the beginning of the Brad Stevens era. Even our old pals at Cincinnati just had their lowest foul rate in the Mick Cronin era (26.1%..8th nationally)

It’s hard to find any other examples in the Big East that display a significant change in pattern – and Georgetown is the most glaring. That lends itself to the notion that has been more personnel, and perhaps an inability to trust the zone defense than an officiating change. This year is the true test, with the biggest fouling offenders departing the program (which by the way, is not meant as anything negative. They all could defend, especially Mikael and Jabril and that will be missed…but the senior group just fouled…. a lot.) The difference of saving 3 to 4 fouls a game is a pretty large number and if Govan/Hayes/Agau are at a general replacement level compared to Smith and Hopkins you could see that type of reduction. My math skills are lacking but I can at least manage this scenario:

Instead of 8 free throws, the opponent has 4 possessions…1 is a turnover, 2 is a stop, 3 is a made 2 and even give them a made 3 on the last possession. They’re netting 5 points instead of the 6 or 7 from the line (and with recent luck, maybe all 8).

With a team and program that generally finds itself in tight games played in the half court, every possession and every point matters. With new personnel in place, I believe some of the free ones come off the board this season.

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