On Monday night Connecticut won at Villanova 84-75, as Kemba Walker and Jerome Dyson scored 29 and 15 points respectively for the Huskies. Walker in particular had a magnificent game, driving to the tin time and time again and drawing contact. So much contact, in fact, that Walker scored 14 of his points from the line. It was a great performance, no doubt, but in this case it was helped along by one seriously foul-happy defense. Long before Walker came into view, Jay Wright ’s team had already shown a strange willingness to foul too much.
There can be situational and strategic reasons for fouling of course. A foul can be better than an uncontested layup. And aggressive defense from a deep front-line can carry with it the risk of some opponent free throws. Understood. But I’ve tracked my fair share of major-conference hoops and over the past two seasons not one team has fouled this much with relation to what its conference’s refs usually whistle. This wasn’t a case of Villanova simply fouling late in the game against UConn because they were behind. They’ve been fouling all year.
Meet the Villanova Wildhacks
Conference games only: ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-10 & SEC, 2009 & 10
Hack Factor: Opponent FTA/FGA, standard deviations above conference average
Villanova 2010 2.43
Oregon 2009 2.25
Washington 2010 1.99
Ole Miss 2009 1.96
Indiana 2010 1.80
How much better would ‘Nova be on defense if they would just stop hacking? We can’t be sure, of course. In asking the question we’re trying to ascertain what would happen if what never happened happened. But here’s a suggestive comparison.
Opp eFG% DR% Opp TO% Opp PPP
Villanova 48.6 66.0 20.1 1.06
Cal 48.7 66.0 19.9 1.01
Reading left to right, ‘Nova and Cal are well nigh identical in how well they play FG defense, crash the defensive glass, and force turnovers within their respective conferences. So how come Wright’s team gives up so many more points on each possession? In large part because they foul so much. You might not think the difference between giving up 1.06 and 1.01 points per trip is anything to get too riled about, and ordinarily you’d be right. In this case, however, it spells the difference between Villanova being a somewhat overhyped team with a questionable defense and being clearly the best team in the Big East.
The Wildcats are a team with a spectacular offense and a so-so defense. Within that defense, every area of their performance has actually been better than average during conference play. Field goal defense on both sides of the arc, defensive rebounding, forced turnovers–you name it, Villanova has been above-average. Except for the fouls.
It’s true that the ‘Cats get to the line quite often themselves–and if they’d just stop hacking so much on defense they’d see much more bang for their buck from all those fouls they draw on offense. I can’t think of another improvement that a nationally-ranked team can make that would be a) so easy to implement, and b) so effective. If ‘Nova gets the memo and simply stops putting opponents on the line, look out.