Why does San Francisco intentionally foul at the end of the first half?

Rob Dauster
NBC Sports

Something weird happened at the end of the first half of San Francisco’s win over Pacific over the weekend.

The Dons scored an and-one with just 12 seconds left in the half. They went up 45-33 after Jamaree Bouyea hit his free throw. The absolute worst-case scenario here is that they would be heading into halftime with a 45-37 lead, should someone on USF be silly enough to foul a three-point shooter.

But that’s not what happened.

Instead, USF … fouled Pacific?

Here’s the clip:


What you see there is USF head coach Todd Golden bringing in his best on-ball defender, Khalil Shabazz, to throw on Pacific’s freshman point guard, Pierre Crockrell.

The goal?

To try and get a steal, and if they can’t get a quick steal, foul.

Why?

Crockrell entered the game as a 36 percent free throw shooter. That number dropped all the way to 22 percent against Division I opponents, and the Dons were still in the 1-and-1. This was the perfect chance for San Francisco to steal a couple of points at the end of the half.

“The last possession of a half is less valuable than others by nature,” said Jonathan Safir, USF’s Director of Basketball Operations and the resident stat nerd on Golden’s bench. “It’s almost always against a set defense in a non-transition opportunity where you want to shoot in a specific time period. So we call that last possession 0.8 xPPP [expected points-per-possession].

“So if we don’t foul, they win the end of the half 0.8 to 0.0. By fouling a 22 percent free throw shooter, their xPPP becomes 0.27 points and we get the ball back for the 0.8 xPPP possession. So we win the final 12 seconds 0.8 to 0.27. That’s a swing of 1.33 xPPP.”

In theory.

In practice, this ended up earning the Dons two extra points on their lead. Instead of going into halftime with, at best, a 12 point lead, they entered the break up 48-34. And if Shabazz, who averages 1.6 steals per game, had picked Crockrell’s pocket, the process could have started all over again.

This was something that the coaching staff has had in their back pocket all season, and there are a few more tricks that they have left up their sleeve if the situation is right. In this case, the key was finding a player that shoots under 50 percent from the free throw line while being in the 1-and-1. If the shooters are better than that, or if the team is in the double-bonus, it’s not worth the risk.

We hear a lot about analytics in sports.

This is how analytics are implemented into a basketball game.

“College is definitely behind the NBA with the ways to evaluate and implement data analysis,” Golden said. “College is also different because of the tiers and hierarchy in Division I. Incremental advantages are not necessarily as important when there is a large talent disparity.”

There are also limitations given the talent level in college. Take, for example, big men. The best teams in college basketball still rely heavily on post touches and big men that play with their back to the basket — Filip Petrusev at Gonzaga, Udoka Azubuike at Kansas, Vernon Carey at Duke — and this is because the players that can create mismatches by defending in the paint and playing on the perimeter offensively don’t spend long in college.

What that means is that the statistical analysis San Francisco does has to be taken into context.

Put another way, the Moneyball era in baseball was based entirely on the math and the data. San Francisco calls themselves Astroball.

Well, called.

Past tense.

“We need a new name now,” Golden said, chuckling, before explaining how important it is to use more than just a spreadsheet to coach. “We maintain the human element, keep it involved in decision-making. Our scouting isn’t strictly based on statistical performance. You need to find a happy marriage between the two, to gain as much of a statistical advantage as possible while staying true to evaluating based on personal touch.”

That’s a long-winded way of saying that the edge for college basketball teams playing at the level USF is playing — they are a top 100 team on KenPom right now — isn’t necessarily to go all the way on shooting threes, layups and free throws.

It’s doing things like fouling bad free throw shooters to earn themselves a couple of extra points at the end of a half. It’s going all-in on 2-for-1’s at the end of halves. It’s playing guys that have two fouls in the first half instead of parking them on the bench. It’s studying lineup data to determine the most efficient way to play when specific players are on the floor together.

“It’s best when data is checked by eyeballs, which is checked by the human element,” Golden said.

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