Wednesday night, a situation arose that sparked an interesting debate involving myself, my friend who shares my passion for college hoops and had his phone handy, and an extremely talented freshman playing in a conference road game between two top-25 teams. Now, if you’re like most of the country and are waiting until March to care about college hoops, this debate may not interest you. But it’s one that I felt like writing about. (Quite simply, I haven’t written enough over the last month, damn it, and I have this blog that I haven’t used in forever. YOLO.)
The situation was this: following Minnesota’s ass-whooping of Illinois (an extremely impressive road win for a team that just might have a dark-horse shot at stealing the regular season B1G championship from Indiana and Michigan—perhaps a later blog post?), I flipped over to CBS Sports to catch the second half of the game between No. 24 UNLV and No. 25 New Mexico.
UNLV’s stud freshman forward Anthony Bennett was doing things. By this I mean he was making the Lobos look like a middle school team. Straight out of the gate in the second half, he took over the game. He started making everything—3s, mid-range jumpers, well-executed post moves—and led a 15-2 run that had the Runnin’ Rebels threatening to, well, run away, up 45-39.
Then, just like that, Bennett had to leave the game with his fourth foul. Having just flipped to the game at the start of the second half, I had not realized that Bennett was in foul trouble. It was quite an interesting twist to a game that seconds before he was squeezing the life out of. The Lobos returned fire, grabbing back the lead.
The following conversation then occurred between my friend Colin and I:
Me: “You watching UNLV/UNM?”
Colin: “Yessir turned it on after the gopher game.”
Me: “How long do you sit Bennett here?”
Indeed. The dreaded question that every coach must ask himself at one point or another: How long do you sit your star player when he gets in foul trouble early in the second half? As the teams traded baskets and the game stayed close, the debate wore on. Following the under-8 timeout, we got our answer. Bennett had re-entered the game. I feared it was too early. Colin wasn’t so sure.
As it turned out, Bennett was able to avoid picking up his fifth foul and played the final seven-plus minutes. He was far from effective, however, even turning the ball over during a crucial possession down the stretch as the Lobos got a crucial 65-60 win at home in The Pit.
I still think I was right for a variety of reasons. Those reasons are reinforced by a list of questions that I feel any coach should ask himself in this situation. The coach, in this instance, was Dave Rice. Here are the questions:
1. Is the presence of Anthony Bennett crucial to my team winning this basketball game? The answer: Yes, as proven by the devastating skill that he had just put on display over the last few minutes before he picked up his fourth foul. New Mexico simply had no answer for it. I’m not sure anyone does.
2. Can Bennett be effective (on both ends) for a long period of time without fouling? The answer: As proven by his play over the last seven minutes, no. New Mexico’s Alex Kirk punished Bennett in the first half, which is the reason he was in foul trouble. Kirk finished with 23 points and nine rebounds. While you can take Bennett off of Kirk, the Lobos are a heady team that moves the ball well. Bennett was a liability in man-to-man defense. Hiding him in a zone might have worked, but New Mexico torched UNLV earlier in the game when they tried to go zone. Offensively, Bennett likes to get the ball inside and is normally aggressive when he does. It looked like he went away from that for the first few minutes upon re-entering, which limited the Rebels’ effectiveness.
3. How long can we hang in without him? The answer: This one usually answers itself. While you don’t want to allow a team to completely steal the momentum, you do have timeouts that can stop the bleeding. A few quick baskets by the home team would have sent The Pit into a frenzy. In my opinion, that wouldn’t have been the end of the world. Call a timeout and get your star back in the game with your team down five or six and plenty of time to make up the deficit.
Having asked those questions and decided upon the answers, I’m still not sure what the correct course of action is. I do however know what I would have done. Having watched my team stay within one (52-51) heading into the under-8, I would have kept Bennett on the bench. In that timeout, I would have asked my team to value each possession. Give up nothing inside the lane on defense and work the ball and the clock on the other end, and let’s see if we can’t play these next four minutes even or better. If New Mexico had made a run (which they did, with Bennett in) I would have called timeout and put Bennett back in.
I would have went that route for two reasons: One, with a player like Bennett who relies on being able to get the ball on the block as well as outside, you’re handicapping his game making him play without fouling. It’s like tying one arm behind his back. The Lobos recognized that and fed on it like a pack of angry dogs (college basketball mascot puns!). Two, I worry that UNLV has become too reliant on its star. That can be dangerous for a team that hopes to make a run in March. The Rebels are a talented team, but they’re going to have to find other players who can score in big moments. It was a great opportunity to put the ball in the hands of Khem Birch, Anthony Marshall and Katin Reinhardt. I think Rice panicked and went back to his main weapon a little too early.
Of course, there is another side to this debate, which is the side Colin was on. He thought Bennett should have returned to the game when he did. I asked him to explain why, and here’s what he came up with:
“What makes this argument so difficult is that I can easily see both sides of it. I completely understand wanting to save your best player for a close ending and having them on the court during the most crucial part of the game, however, what if you aren’t able to get to that point because you leave them out of the game for too long?
When Bennett came back into the game with just under eight minutes to go, I thought it may have been a tiny bit too early, but, as I told Chris, I’d rather put a guy like that in too early than too late. Bennett had been on a tear before picking up his fourth foul. He was the reason that UNLV had been leading and was still easily within striking distance in one of the most hostile arenas in the country. The Runnin’ Rebels clearly needed to have Bennett in the game for as long as possible.
Leaving your star player on the bench until your opponent makes a run or gains momentum doesn’t appeal to me at all. When you’re playing on the road, and especially in The Pit, momentum becomes an even bigger factor. If New Mexico goes on a run, gains all the momentum, and has the crowd rocking, putting your star player back into the game may be too little too late. Sure you can call a timeout and attempt to calm the crowd and somewhat reset the momentum. But why wait to put your star back in the game until your team is down eight and force them to try and fight back when you can have him in the game down only one, and have a chance to take the lead or go on a run of your own?
Another issue with keeping Bennett, or any other star, out of the game until your opponent makes a run is your star player picking up that last foul right after being put back in the game. If this happens, then you will have taken your star out, given up momentum, and now your team loses even more confidence. Even if you put your star in early when your team is down by 1 and he picks up his fifth foul quickly, your team is still in the game and still believes they can win. If they give up a run, then you bring your star back in to save the day, and he fouls out right away, your team is going to have less belief they can come back because they will be trailing by a larger deficit and not have their leader on the court to help drive a comeback.
I believe in having your best players on the court for as long as possible. This does not mean you play a guy with 3 or 4 fouls in the first half, obviously, you still have to use common sense. But I would much rather have my star player on the court playing with eight minutes left knowing that he could not pick up that last foul and he could play a solid final eight minutes and help my team get a victory, rather than keep him on the bench because there is a possibility that he could foul out early. If he fouls out, then he’s on the bench anyway and you know you got as much out of him as you could. You don’t have to ask the question “What if I’d put him in earlier?” when you only play him for the last 4 minutes and your team can’t quite come back from the eight point hole that they’ve been dug into while your star was on the bench.
Is there a perfect scenario? Of course not. Whether a coach decides to play his star or have him on the bench to make sure he can play in the final crucial moments of the game, they both have major pros and major cons. This is the exact reason why I’m glad that I’m the one sitting on my lazy butt watching the games instead of being the guy coaching the team who has to make decision like this.”