Fouling Out is Stupid

“That game was really an all-timer! Both teams’ stars got into foul trouble early, which meant us viewers got to see each coach delve into their bench units. We basically got to see which team’s scout team was better for, like, 10 minutes in the first half! I loved watching all the strategy utilized by both coaches. So what if the stars can’t play because they were stupid and committed fouls? I like seeing the subs. Who has more unsung heroes? That’s why I tune into basketball games, and the one today provided just that.”

Ok, now give me just one second. Let me take you somewhere. Join me on this ride where I carry you to an alternative universe. In this realm, Monk misses both of those prayer threes, Kennedy Meeks calls a timeout rather than idiotically conceding a five-second call, and Luke Maye doesn’t even have a chance to hit the game-winning mid-range jumper because Carolina makes their free throws and salts it away in the waning minutes.

In THAT world, we’re not left with the lasting mental images of Monk’s hero-three ball and Maye’s buzzer-beater. Instead, we’re left with… what? In its totality, the game was ugly. I don’t know what the stats say (I’ve yet to look at a box score), but neither team’s stars got going – at all – and the game was rife with turnovers, muffed transition possessions, and missed contested three-pointers.

Of course, there’s credit due to both defenses. Justin Jackson was outstanding as he strapped up Malik Monk all evening, while Kentucky’s bigs rebounded like there’s no tomorrow and mostly stifled the Carolina front court.

But, lets go back to the first half… The Tar Heels won it, 38-33, but it was missing something. Oh, that’s right, it was missing the best players. Aside from a final offensive possession when Coach Cal subbed in Fox and Monk, those Kentucky guards sat with Briscoe for the last 7 or 8 minutes with two fouls. Fox was even sidelined with something like 12 minutes left in the first half.

On the other side, Carolina’s backcourt was further decimated by Joel Berry lumbering to the locker room following a brief ankle turn, but after Theo Pinson and Nate Britt picked up two quick fouls of their own, Roy Williams was forced to hand his backcourt reigns to the ever-terrifying tandem of Seventh Woods and Stillman White. Woods only played a minute or so until Berry emerged from the locker room, and White only tallied five minutes of his own, but still… they saw time.

Usually, foul trouble takes bigs out of games (first halves, specifically), but tonight, it was the guards who suffered immensely from the referees’ unforgiving whistle. After a perusal of the Twitter world at halftime, it appeared neither side was satisfied with the officiating, and the general consensus was, as its been all tournament, “college refs just suck.”

So, the obvious fix to this problem is to get better referees. Yes, seamless officiating would eliminate bad calls on star athletes. Then, getting into “foul trouble” would inherently be solely their fault and their problem, and the other team should be rewarded for creating that competitive advantage. That’s why “fouling out” exists – it’s to reward teams for consistently putting the other team in a position where they have to foul. At its heart, I get why the concept exists, but because of the inherent human error that will forever affect basketball officiating, “fouling out” loses its legitimacy.

If I had it my way, the foul limit in both the NBA and NCAA would be 7 fouls. I used to hold the belief that there shouldn’t be any limit at all, but I realize that the bonus/double bonus situations wouldn’t provide the necessary disincentive to keep players from just taking players’ heads off. It would make every play at the rim an absolute bloodbath, especially when it’s a poor free throw shooter rising up for a dunk. I understand now that there’s a need for a limit, but in the college game, it shouldn’t be five.

There are two twenty-minute halves in every college basketball showdown. As the game has evolved, an unwritten rule among coaches seems to have surfaced, speculating that letting one of your starters pick up his third foul in the first half is basketball suicide. So, when a starter picks up his second foul, he finds a seat on the bench for the rest of the first half, unless it’s a particularly vital one-man-team type of player or a grizzled veteran who the coach trusts to not do anything stupid. But, more often than not, star players miss a large part of the half with two fouls. We saw this today with Fox, Monk, Briscoe, Britt, and Pinson. Josh Jackson was victimized last night.

I get why this rule has come to be tradition. The second half is ultimately more important than the second half, and you’d like your best players to be on the floor for all but a couple minutes in the second frame. Even better, you’d like them to be playing with fewer than four fouls. Ensuring that they don’t pick up their third foul before intermission is a great way to keep your best players on the floor in the second half. That part makes sense.

What doesn’t make sense, however, is me spending a large part of my Sunday evening watching Dominique Hawkins and Mychal Mulder instead of Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox.

Monk tallied 30 minutes, while Fox chalked only 28. I don’t have the stats on this, but I’m willing to bet neither sat in the second half. I should be seeing both of those guys get 35-37 minutes in an elite 8 game. There’s a spot for players like Hawkins and Mulder – but they’re there to bridge the gap when one of Fox or Monk isn’t on the floor… Not run the offense when both have to be on the bench.

Yeah, Jack, but that’s the point… You foul, you get penalized. Fox should have known better picking up his second foul. Kentucky deserves to suffer because he made a dumb play. 

Sure, ok. But, we just agreed that college officiating SUCKS! With the 5 foul limit, we give those referees ZERO room for error! Growing up, my mom always used to tell me:

“You get 5 fouls – 3 of them are legitimate, and 2 of them are bad calls. But that’s just how it is, and it all evens out, so get over it.”

I think those are great words to live by – by then why does the NCAA enforce a 5 foul limit when a player can easily be the victim of two poor calls in the first couple minutes and then have to sit for the entire first half?

I promise, if you asked the officials, they’d love for the NCAA to extend the limit. I can’t imagine it’s much fun to officiate when stars are in foul trouble. They know they’re going to make mistakes, and they probably hate the idea of a kid being disqualified for their poor officiating. (Again, the officiating will never be perfect, so let’s stop acting like that’s the solution).

In the NBA, especially in the regular season, it’s less of an issue. In their 48-minute game, they get six fouls. But, it’s far less physical, players play fewer minutes (especially in the regular season) and the officiating is BETTER because they are professional referees. It’s just less of an issue in the NBA.

But, one of the knocks on college basketball will always be that it’s an inferior product than that of the NBA. Some basketball people just can’t watch college hoops because the quality of basketball just wanes in comparison.

A good way to counter that notion would be for the NCAA to keep their best products on the floor. The NCAA does itself no favors when its foul limit prohibits players like De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk, and Josh Jackson from playing on college basketball’s biggest stage.

I’m sick of watching the best college basketball players sit on the bench because they pick up two fouls in the first half. Extend the foul limit. The “strategy” that comes along with a coach dealing with foul trouble isn’t nearly as entertaining as watching Malik Monk going bonkers or Josh Jackson dunking on literally everybody. It’s a simple fix, and I’m sick of college hoops being so stuck in tradition that it voluntarily keeps its best products on the sideline.

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