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Beware the Whistles of March

Identifying some key hatchet man from tourney teams

By Adam Hoff

If there is one thing I hate about college basketball, it is the rule that limits each player to five personal fouls. Obviously, college games are shorter than the pro version and five fouls makes sense from a proportional standpoint, but that doesn’t change the actual impact the rule has on the game. Players are constantly sitting down early in the first half with two fouls, missing critical time late in the game, and, ultimately, fouling out. I remember Brandon Roy being saddled with four (dubious) fouls in last year’s tournament and watching helplessly as UConn was allowed back into a game they had no business winning. Last week, Texas A&M’s James Jones went to the bench late in the second half after fouling out against Texas … and then watched another 12 minutes of basketball as the game went to two overtimes.

Officiating is subjective enough and crappy enough that we shouldn’t be penalizing players so harshly for picking up personal fouls. On defense a guy is pretty much helpless if an official wants to blow his whistle (since there is arguably a foul on every play) and even on offense he runs the risk of picking up a cheap one as charging calls have become far too prevalent. Star players are forced to play passively, hide on defense, avoid going for loose balls, and otherwise cease playing real basketball, all out of fear that they might get a few unlucky whistles. Something needs to change.

That said, we’re stuck with the rules we’ve got, at least for the time being. And that means that foul trouble will once again play a massive role come tournament time. I have no doubt in my mind that some teams will lose unfairly because key players foul out, that others will win simply because they got an opponent into foul trouble, and that the final “One Shining Moment” montage will feature at least one dejected (and disqualified) senior sitting on the bench with a towel over his head.

Obviously, teams will be running plays designed to get the Greg Odens of the world in foul trouble – this is no mystery. Coaches will attack Kevin Durant on the defensive end, work the refs to call attention to Al Horford’s aggressive work on the boards, and preach help defense like never before in an attempt to pick up charging fouls on Alando Tucker. But the huge stars are obvious. If one of them gets in foul trouble, it is probably lights out, just as it was for Washington last year.

No, I am more interested in some of the key role players on quality teams that have a predisposition to foul; guys who may decide matchups and possibly entire regions based on whether or not they can curb their fouling tendencies.

In order to identify the nation’s most critical hatchet men, I searched for players that average at least 2.8 fouls per game, which – after doing some more in-depth research into game logs – seems to be the cutoff for true foul trouble. Obviously, this is an inexact figure. Some players might be all or nothing foulers and either rack up five (and an early exit) or never get one the whole game. Others might get there in a perfectly methodical way, never getting into any real foul trouble. But by and large, 2.8 seems to work. And having watched all of these guys play, I can attest to the fact that they get in foul trouble quite often.

If your favorite team has a player on this list, watch out. If your team has two players, well, don’t say you weren’t warned. It could be a short March for your squad and a long one for you. Here is the list of worrisome hackers that could spell trouble for their teams:

Darryl Watkins (3.5) and Terrance Roberts (3.2), Syracuse. A dreaded double-trouble situation for the ‘Cuse. To make matters worse, these are pretty much the only legitimate big men Syracuse has on the roster. Watkins is a legit NBA prospect who is the anchor of the 2-3 zone and is averaging 3.5 blocks per game, while Roberts is an emotional leader and the best finisher on Jim Boeheim’s squad. Based on the numbers, it seems impossible that they will both stay out of foul trouble in a game – Syracuse just needs to hope that one of them can stay on the floor. Imagine if they ever played man-to-man; these guys wouldn’t last a single half.

Jerel McNeal (3.5), Marquette. McNeal is arguably the best player on this list. While Dominic James is the face of the Eagles, it is McNeal who tends to make them go with his exciting brand of basketball. When he is slashing to the basket (14.7 points) and causing havoc on defense (2.6 steals), Marquette can be tough to beat. Unfortunately, all that slashing and causing of havoc has a steep price – constant foul trouble. McNeal will need to avoid charging fouls and crashing into would-be recipients of passes while still playing aggressive basketball. It won’t be easy.

James Jones (3.4) and Antanas Kavaliauskas (3.1), Texas A&M. Part of this is a product of Billie Gillespie’s rugged style of play, but that said, the presence of A&M’s only two legit post players on this list is very worrisome. In a previous column I listed them as my #2 choice to win it all, but this makes me think twice. Jones is their best rebounder and low-post scorer (13.2 points per game on 54.4% shooting) while Kavaliauskas is their best interior defender and a guy who can help stretch defenses by pulling out big men and making jumpers (well, set shots, but whatever). To lose one of them in a tight game will be a mighty blow. Lose both and the Aggies are probably finished, no matter what tricks Acie Law might have up his sleeve.

Ekene Ibekwe (3.2), Maryland. The Terps are blessed with a balanced lineup and two shot-blockers, so even if Ibekwe gets into foul trouble, they can still compete. However, he is a veteran player who averages 10.6 points, 7.6 rebounds, and 2.7 blocks a game, so I very much doubt that Gary Williams relishes the thought of playing many minutes without him – especially when it means going with what amounts to a four-guard lineup with only forward James Gist on the inside. Maryland is red hot right now and has the type of lineup that could spark them on a Final Four run, but they will need to keep Ibekwe on the floor to do it.

Curtis Sumpter (3.1), Villanova. After McNeal, Sumpter is probably the best player listed here. Nova has become increasingly reliant on super freshman Scottie Reynolds for points, but Sumpter is still the security blanket; a guy who has overcome multiple injuries to record 17 and 7 a night this year and anchor the Wildcats’ pick-and-roll game. He has a tendency to get some unbelievably unlucky fouls and it would be a shame to see this guy sitting on the bench as his career comes to an end.

Jamon Gordon (3.1) and Deron Washington (3.0), Virginia Tech. Many fans can’t seem to wrap their head around the fact that the Hokies are headed for the NCAA Tournament and possibly even a #4 or #5 seed. Part of the reason Virginia Tech has been such a surprise story this year is because of their tremendous athleticism that allows them to pressure the ball, attack the rim, and get out and run. Unfortunately, in another case of yin and yang, cause and effect, the Hokies also tend to foul a great deal. No doubt these numbers are inflated by playing Duke twice (sorry, had to get my usual joke about the Blue Devils and the officials in there), but the fact remains that they could wind up in real trouble with a few bad whistles. Gordon is a do-everything player that fills up the stat sheet and averages 2.5 steals a game, while Washington is one of Virginia Tech’s best slashers. Like Syracuse and A&M, I think the Hokies will be hard-pressed to keep these two valuable players on the floor, which means that they probably aren’t the quality tourney sleeper they appear to be at first glance.

Randal Falker (3.0), Southern Illinois. The Salukis are a well-coached March mainstay at this point, but that doesn’t mean they can afford to see a starter go out with foul trouble. In the case of Falker, it is a massive blow whenever he leaves the floor, as Southern Illinois loses his 13 points, 7.6 board, and 2.1 blocks, but also his leadership and intensity. The Egyptian Racing Dogs are going to get their best seed ever this year, but as we saw in the MVC championship game, their margin for error remains as slim as ever.

David Padgett (3.0), Louisville. The Cardinals don’t rely as much on Padgett as they did last year and they are a better team for it. That said, he is really their only source of low-post scoring and when the games slow down with all those TV time outs, Louisville is going to need to get points in the half court and get them on the block. To do that, they are will need to have Padgett and his 56.3% shooting on the floor. No easy task the way he hacks.

Damion James (2.8), Texas. Three weeks ago the sight of Damion James heading to the bench with foul trouble wouldn’t have been that big of a deal for Longhorn fans. But that was before James found the range and became a vital part of the Texas attack. I would argue that the biggest change in UT from a month ago to now is that James has become an aggressive rebounder, strong defender, and serviceable fourth option as a scorer. He was cautious and a step slow before, but now he’s in attack mode. The problem is that he often attacks the arms, shoulders, and heads of the other players. He needs to stay on the floor to set screens, knock down 12-footers, and guard the other team’s best forward (so that Kevin Durant doesn’t have to).

Joey Dorsey (2.8), Memphis. The Tigers have a ton of talent and can run with the best of them, but their options for protecting the rim are limited. That is why they need Dorsey to harness his emotions and avoid stupid fouls. His is a master at picking up a cheap foul, then immediately tacking on another one out of frustration. The Tigers need his 10 boards a game and will do whatever they can to protect their hyperactive big man. (And yes, Joey, technical fouls count as personal fouls in college, so you might want to keep your big mouth shut as well.)

Raymar Morgan (2.8), Michigan State. The Spartans have become the Drew Neitzel Show this year, but just because he makes all the big shots and is outpacing Gonzaga’s Derrick Raivio in the “Skinny, White, and Bald” Point Guard Challenge doesn’t mean he is all the Spartans have. They’ve got a couple of active big men on the roster, some solid role players, and one fantastic athlete in Morgan. He is Michigan State’s best defender, most explosive finisher, and a source of 11 points a game on a team that is sometimes starved for offense. He just needs to stop hand-checking so much.

Da’Sean Dickey (2.8), Georgia Tech. I’ve fallen in love with the Yellow Jackets lately and think they could be ready for a big tournament run behind the play of freshmen Javaris Crittenton and Thaddeus Young. However, to do so they are going to need some great interior play from Dickey. He is their only shot-blocker and one of the few guys with any post moves whatsoever. He also shoots at nearly a 60% clip, which is always nice. That said, he also hacks at a prolific rate, getting this 2.8 fouls per game in just 22.5 minutes of action. If he can block shots without fouling, Georgia Tech will be a tough out.

Darrell Arthur (2.8), Kansas. The Jayhawks have pretty much everything you need for a championship run. They have a scorer in Brandon Rush, an MVP in Julian Wright, some size in Sasha Kahn and Darnell Jackson, and a great backcourt mix with Mario Chalmers, Russell Robinson, and Sherron Collins. For all that though, their title chances probably come down to Arthur. The freshman sensation is the only guy on the Kansas roster that can demand double teams on the low block and considering that he scored almost 11 a game in just 19.6 minutes of action, it is clear that he is capable of putting points on the board. Of course, he is also clearly capable of hacking the crap out of people. He will need to do more of the former and less of the latter if Kansas is to reverse their recent trend of first round failure and go deep into the tourney.

Adam Hoff is a columnist for WhatifSports.com.

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