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January 25, 2008
Taming the Tigers
A Foul Approach

by Ken Pomeroy

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Note to readers: Usually I like to write for a general audience. While I'm sure you will enjoy this piece, my audience today is intended to be Matt Doherty and Larry Eustachy. If you know either of these men, please forward this along to them. It's for their own good.

For those who have embraced the world of tempo-free statistics--if you're reading this, you're probably one of them--there's a subtle aspect of the game that shouldn't be lost on you. Getting to the free-throw line frequently can provide a real bonus to the offense and be an impediment to the defense. Division I teams have averaged 1.008 points per possession this season. That's significantly less than a team that shoots 70% (roughly the college average) from the line will average--1.4 points--on every possession that involves two free throws. Actually, they'll average even more if you consider the occasional offensive rebounds that will occur on the second shot when it's missed.

Almost all analysis involving free throws will center around a team's free throw percentage, and most of it will involve how it influences late -game situations. That effect is vastly overstated. I'll concede that Jacksonville State, dead last in free throw shooting against D-I foes at 55.7%, would be a more successful team if they made free throws like national leader IUPUI (81.7%). However, there's no team in Division I for whom a trip to the line would be a bad thing. Take any team in the land, multiply their free throw percentage by two, and you'll get a number larger than their raw offensive efficiency this season. Even those bricklaying Gamecocks from the Ohio Valley.

This finding is a good thing and means that all is right in the basketball universe. Were it not so, the only deterrent to fouling would be the five-foul disqualification rule, because the defense would actually be rewarded for sending a team to the line. However, there is one team, and only one team, coming dangerously close to violating that principle in 2008. After Wednesday's 8-of-15 performance at the line against Tulsa, the Memphis Tigers are shooting 58.5% from the line as a team, which means their two trips net them 1.17 points per free throw possession. Overall, they've scored 1.15 points per possession.

Unfortunately for John Calipari, Memphis gets to the line frequently. Their free throw rate, as traditionally measured in FTM per 100 FGAs, ranks them just 251st in the country, but it's the Tigers' lack of accuracy at the line that is the reason for their low ranking. They actually have no problem getting to the line: they shoot 32.9 free throws for every 100 possessions and that puts them 53rd.

Memphis is barely a more efficient team at the line than they are away from it. However, this comparison involves Memphis' free throw shooting and its average offensive performance. The Tigers' ability to make free throws should be constant regardless of the opponent, but their offensive efficiency will not be. They should be able to score more easily--free throw possessions excluded--against worse defenses. Half of the reason that Conference USA has few teams that can even provide a challenge to Memphis for 40 minutes is that there are a lot of bad defenses in the conference. (The other half of the reason is that there are plenty of horrible offenses, too.)

Memphis' offense figures to scorch the likes of SMU and Southern Miss who have had trouble stopping teams that aren't even dreaming of the postseason, currently ranking 227th and 157th respectively in adjusted defensive efficiency. The Tigers have already faced Southern Miss once, blasting Larry Eustachy's defense to the tune of 83 points in 66 possessions last Saturday. It was a game that saw Memphis go to the line 23 times and make just 12 shots. It was also a game that the Golden Eagles had no chance of winning by playing conventional basketball. It's not an exaggeration to say the USM could play Memphis 100 times in FedEx Forum and probably not win a single game. Ditto for Matt Doherty's SMU team, whose defense has struggled to keep points off the board against Southern, Centenary and Houston Baptist so far this season. The Ponies have two contests upcoming with Memphis, both with an outcome just as predetermined as anything the WWE is putting on these days.

For both the Golden Eagles and Mustangs there is only one option if either is serious about winning: foul, foul and foul again. Use your bench and make plenty of offense/defense substitutions if you have to. (Memphis likes to foul, too, so there will be plenty of opportunities to do this.) I'm not saying this is a foolproof strategy. It will almost surely result in an embarrassing loss, but that's liable to happen anyway. I am saying it's a smart strategy.

Heck, if they had enough bodies to send Memphis to the line every time, both teams would have a great chance to improve their defensive efficiency over what would otherwise be expected against Memphis. Squads like Gonzaga, Tennessee and UAB can play the Tigers straight up and hope to contain their offense. But if Southern Miss and SMU are really trying to beat the Tigers, anything less than 40 fouls is unacceptable.

Don't forget to box out on that second free throw attempt, either.

Ken Pomeroy is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Ken by clicking here or click here to see Ken's other articles.

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