Saturday's game provided solid arguments both for and against the strategy of benching a key player due to early foul trouble.
With 9:13 left in the first half, Damian Jones picked up his second foul. After Texas A&M's Tyler Davis made two free throws, Vanderbilt trailed 21-14. Kevin Stallings, rather than sending his big man to the bench, decided to leave him in. This actually might have been a good strategic decision; the Aggies were on a 7-0 run, and thanks in part to Stallings' decision to leave Jones in the game, the Commodores went on a run of their own, pulling ahead 30-29 on a three-point play by Jones with 3:46 left before halftime.
And then Jones picked up his third foul with 2:25 left in the half. And he picked up his fourth foul 28 seconds into the second half.
Most coaches will sit a player who picks up two fouls in the first half, often for the remainder of the half. It's so common that it seems automatic at times, but perhaps it's worth exploring the reasoning behind it. It's frequently said that coaches want to preserve a star player for the end of the game. A better argument, though, would be that coaches want their best players on the floor in high-leverage situations. It's also true that high-leverage situations are rare in the first half, which is why it's rare for a coach to play a guy with two fouls before halftime.
Exceptions exist, though, and perhaps Stallings sensed a high-leverage situation on his hands when Jones picked up his second foul. Midway through the first half, Texas A&M was on a 7-0 run, but more importantly, Tyler Davis -- the 6'10", 265-pound freshman -- had scored six points in the last three minutes of the game. Sending Jones to the bench (remember, Jeff Roberson was also in foul trouble) likely meant relying on his backups to keep Davis in check. There was a reasonable chance that with Jones on the bench, the Aggies might have built an even bigger lead. What is the point of having your star player available in the final minutes if the game is already decided before then?
But then we get back to the argument for benching Jones. What actually wound up being the highest-leverage portion of the game came immediately after halftime. Texas A&M had closed the first half on a 10-2 run, and Vanderbilt desperately needed to land a few blows early in the second half. Instead, Jones went to the bench with his fourth foul and the Aggies extended the run to 20-4 in the first four minutes of the second half, effectively putting away the Commodores for good.
Had Stallings gone with the conventional wisdom, the foul on Jones in the first minute of the second half would have been his third. But then, maybe, if he had sent Jones to the bench midway through the first half, the game would have been over at halftime.
That's why these things are not easy decisions.
|Wade Baldwin IV||32||2||7||1||3||6||6||1||2||3||1||11||8||2||0||0||15.5||0.48|
- Samir Sehic posting a higher Game Score than Luke Kornet and Jeff Roberson -- combined! -- really tells you everything you need to know about this game.
- Actually, that's a bit unfair. Sehic actually did play well in non-garbage time minutes yesterday. In fact that was a fairly consistent theme, with Riley LaChance and Camron Justice making positive contributions off the bench as well. (I'd say that about Josh Henderson, too, except three turnovers in ten minutes... yeesh.)
- I may be grading Riley on a bit of a curve, but considering how his season has gone I'll take six rebounds and three assists, even if he did shoot 3-for-9 from the floor.
- In most games, if Vanderbilt's bench is playing like they did on Saturday, Vanderbilt is going to be just fine. The problem on Saturday was that other than Wade Baldwin IV, the starters just weren't doing much. Which I realize isn't fair to Damian Jones, who played well other than, you know, picking up five fouls. Yes, Luke Kornet did have six blocks but those six blocks were all that prevented him from posting a negative Game Score.
- Vandy did go 11-for-11 at the foul line. Grasping at straws to find positives, I'm aware.
Well, Vanderbilt will play again on Thursday in the second round of the SEC Tournament, against the winner of Wednesday night's horror show between Tennessee and Auburn. I'm still fairly confident that Vanderbilt will make the NCAA Tournament, but it goes without saying that losing to either of those teams would probably send Vanderbilt to the NIT. The good news is that Vanderbilt won its four games against Tennessee and Auburn this season by an average of 19.5 points, so... there's reason to be confident.