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The case against Fran McCaffery’s “two foul” rule

Luka Garza sat out 12 important minutes because of a dated and arbitrary rule

NCAA Basketball: Iowa at Illinois Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

The Iowa Hawkeyes lost yesterday and the world came crashing down around us. Our hopes and dreams of contending for a Big Ten regular season championship in basketball now sit along our hopes and dreams of contending for a Big Ten title in football. Silly us for ever thinking it could change.

Part of the reason is Fran McCaffery has been up-and-down this year as Iowa’s head basketball coach. The microscope is on him because when your team enters the season with rhetoric about not wanting to go undefeated but going “1-0” 27 straight times, every mistake is magnified. That’s what happens when you set your sights high.

Now, there are a number of reasons he’s feeling the heat: yo-yo rotations, end of game mismanagement, an inability to develop an okay defense alongside an elite offense. Yet the biggest issue is a willingness to sit Iowa’s best players because of a rule he uniquely adheres to: sitting starters in the first half after they’ve gathered their second foul.

Surely he cannot be that unique in his rigidness of the rule

According to KenPom’s 2-foul participation ($), Iowa ranks 330th out of 337 Division 1 teams. Hawkeyes have played just 2:30 of 113:29 available. Adjusted for Big Ten-only teams does not have it fall so far out of line, as four other teams play guys less than 10% of the time after accruing their second foul (Illinois, Penn State, Michigan, and Wisconsin) but that might say more about these teams than it does the direction of college basketball writ large.

The median percentage of time played within the conference is 11.5%, which would rank 250th. Other P5 conference’s median look like:

  • ACC: 22.2% (144th)
  • Big 12: 23.2% (136th)
  • Pac-12: 16.0% (205th)
  • SEC: 18.7% (174th)

Really, this is a league-wide problem being taken out on, at the moment, Fran.

Iowa is stylistically built to sustain this issue

Under Fran, the lowest Iowa has ever ranked in defensive free throw rate - a rough estimate for fouls committed - is 81st in the country ($) during his second year. In six of the last seven years, Iowa has finished in the top 50. In conference only play, they regularly finish in the top half of the conference.

In other words, Iowa avoids fouling as a matter of McCaffery’s preferred style of play.

This is further evidenced by the Hawkeyes’ regular use of a zone as a general effort to limit fouls anyone might accrue. Right now, Iowa ranks 11th in fouls committed during conference-only games, at 15.5. Individually, Iowa has just two guys (Joe Toussaint & Tony Perkins) who average more than 5 fouls/40 minutes played in Big Ten games ($).

Luka Garza averages 2.8/40.

Why yesterday matters

Let’s start with the easy math: Garza played 28 minutes, including every single second of the second half. He averages 32.3 minutes per Big Ten game. So it’s fair to say that Fran “fouled Garza out” for at least 4 minutes of yesterday.

Those 4 minutes could have easily been regained by playing him just ahead of each media timeout until the break, trusting the National Player of the Year candidate to play smart on both sides of the court. Frankly, it is easy to trust him for a number of reasons, but as it pertains to the subject at hand: he finished with only two fouls on the game.

The trickier math is, when prorating his rate of fouling - 2.8/40 - to the remaining 32 minutes, it comes to 2.24. In other words, even if he plays all remaining minutes (no one would suggest this) he might end up fouling out.

On the whole, Iowa has had two guys foul out in conference play - Keegan Murray yesterday and Connor McCaffery against IU the first time. Perhaps this confirmation bias is what shades Fran to bench guys, as both had two fouls in the first half. Yet I would posit they cannot be compared, as their foul rates far exceed Garza’s at 4.6 & 4.7 fouls/40 and, prorated, would be certainties to foul out.

Ironically, Murray entered the first half yesterday after picking up his second foul and proceeded...not to foul in those minutes.

As for the trickiest math, Iowa simply struggles to close games. In four of the Hawkeyes’ seven conference wins, they have held double-digit leads with 5 minutes remaining. Against Minnesota and MSU, they had a 7- and 5-point lead. Rutgers was the only game they came from behind in, with a 3-point deficit at the 5:00 mark.

Here is how they’ve looked in each of Iowa’s five (ugh) conference losses at the same time in each game:

  • at Minnesota: up 68-66
  • vs Indiana: down 60-55
  • at Illinois: tied 69-69
  • vs Ohio State: down 76-75
  • at Indiana: down 55-53

Iowa’s success breaks down as such:

  • 10+ point lead: 4-0
  • 5-9 point lead: 2-0
  • tied-to-4 point lead: 0-2
  • 1-5 point deficit: 1-3

Simply put - having Luka Garza available for the last five minutes is not nearly as important as maxing him and therefore, the team, out the first 35.

Coming into the season, Iowa established high expectations and through 12 conference games, they have failed to live up to them consistently. No doubt the guys in the locker room are more frustrated about this than fans are but there are tangible areas where everyone can improve.

Trusting guys to play smart with two fouls is a good place to start.