Hidden among the many, surprising, surprisingly many bright spots in last night’s victory over the South Bend University Turtlenecks was another example of Jim Boeheim’s brilliance. I shouldn’t still be amazed, but nevertheless I am, at how well JB understands the college game in general, and his team in particular.
The brilliant move was to leave Christmas in the game after his fourth foul. Not just for a few more minutes, but for as long as he was able to stay on the floor.
To refresh your memory: there were about 14 minutes left, and Syracuse led by 4, when Rak picked up foul #4. In this situation, probably 98% of coaches would take out their star player right away, and leave him on the bench until there were only a few minutes left — or until they lost the lead and felt the game slipping away. They would hope that their replacement would be able to ‘hold down the fort’ long enough that the game would still be in reach at the end. Boeheim did the opposite. He kept Rak in, to make sure the game stayed close for as long as possible. When he finally was disqualified, 8 1/2 minutes of game time later, SU had in fact increased their lead to 8 points. The margin shrunk but the lead never disappeared over the final 5:18, and SU came away with the win.
There are a number of reasons why this strategy made sense. But it took Boeheim just an instant of sizing up the situation to know immediately that it was the right move.
First, Rak has had his share of foul trouble and has become skilled at playing conservatively enough to not foul. You could see it several times on defense when he backed away from drivers (while still maintaining enough presence to alter some shots). There were a couple of semi-loose rebounds that he let go into ND hands, rather than sticking his nose in and fighting for them. He made extra sure to set very non-moving screens.
But more than that, JB knows his team. He knows that without Rak on the floor, the offense is going to stall. But — and here’s the key — that’s fine! Late in the game, with a lead on the road, you are already going to take the air out of the ball like you were Tom Brady. That’s something you can do with Chino on the court. In other words, if you have to play for 5 minutes without Rak, it makes more sense to play those 5 minutes with a lead at the end of the game, when ND is going to start getting desperate, than to do it in the middle of the 2nd half, and let the opponent gain confidence for the stretch run. This is Boeheim knowing his team AND knowing the other guys and, more generally, college basketball players. He knows how their psyches work, how momentum shifts are more pronounced in college than in the NBA (because shooters in college are so much less reliable) and he correctly assessed that their best chance to win was to get as much time out of Christmas as possible and then hope to hold on the rest of the way.
Now, this strategy of course was not guaranteed to work. Rak might have fouled out earlier, or ND might have made a couple more shots (or SU a couple fewer) in those last few minutes with Christmas watching helplessly from the sidelines. But it’s clear that the decision to just let Rak play as long as he could manage gave SU the best chance to win.
And, of course, they did. ROAD WIN!!