MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Bo Ryan started his answer before a reporter finished the question about what it takes to play effectively without fouling.
“Don’t leave your feet, don’t reach in with your hands,” said Ryan, who has spent 31 years on the sideline as a coach and has had particular success of late with Wisconsin.
Sounds so simple. And it surely is effective if it can be done.
The Badgers average just 12 fouls a game, the fewest in the country. Counting Wisconsin, seven of the top 10 teams with the fewest personal fouls per game are in the NCAA Tournament– Wyoming, Notre Dame, Virginia, San Diego State, Northern Iowa and Cincinnati.
Much of this has to do with a coach’s philosophy, and the skills emphasized when players come in as recruits. It’s all about eliminating what Fighting Irish guard Pat Connaughton called “free points.”
“Fouling is something that you’re literally giving … the team points when the clock isn’t even moving,” Connaughton said Wednesday.
Keeping fouls in check is a philosophy that fit in perfectly when the NCAA last year put an emphasis on eliminating some physical play, especially around the basket. Fouls, free throws and scoring initially increased at the start of last season before leveling off to the point where the statistics are back to where they were two years ago.
For teams that play that way anyway, there are nice benefits. Like other coaches, San Diego State’s Steve Fisher has a team goal of making more free throws than the opponent takes.
“Last year, we were better at it than this year. We have not ourselves gotten to the line enough this year,” Fisher said. “But we are still significantly ahead in terms of we have had a lot of games where that has happened.”
Limiting fouls can keep a team’s best players on the floor for more minutes. In tight, late-game situations, teams that aren’t in danger of giving foes 1-and-1 opportunities can use fouls as a tool to help kill time.
Of those seven teams in the top 10 for fewest fouls, six are also in the top 10 when it comes to allowing the fewest points per game (Notre Dame is 147th). They are led by Virginia (50.7 points per game), whose play along with that of Wisconsin was front and center when the NCAA and fans were discussing the changes put in place last season to boost the offense.
The Badgers for years have had a reputation as a rugged team, a Big Ten bruiser with a stingy defense. But for the most part, Wisconsin keeps whistles to a minimum.
“I’m tired of hearing other coaches yell from the sideline, ‘Hey, when are you going to call a foul on them? And I want to yell down, ‘When we foul!'” Ryan deadpanned.
Some key points from teams that try to limit fouls:
STAY ON YOUR FEET
To Ryan and the others, it does little good to leap around and put yourself at risk of a foul. In particular, Ryan isn’t enamored with blocked shots. They’re nice to get, but a shot-blocker isn’t of much use if that player gets into trouble while in the air.
“I’ve prided ourselves at Platteville for 15 straight years we led the country in the fewest number of blocked shots, and here at Wisconsin we blocked some shots, we had guys who were capable of doing it without fouling,” Ryan said. “But that’s a statistic that I don’t mind losing — blocked shots.”
Keep hands up when guarding, play defense with the feet. Ryan would prefer to see his players take a charge rather than reaching in.
It sounds easy enough. But instincts can lead a defender to do otherwise.
“It’s hard not to use our hands because guys are quick, strong and athletic,” Wisconsin guard Josh Gasser said when asked if the philosophy was hard to pick up at first. He is Wisconsin’s best on-the-ball defender.
“It’s something that we work on every day in practice,” Gasser said. “It’s drill work, it’s stuff that you kind of understand how to get away with things. You kind of understand what works and what doesn’t.”
This is a point of pride at San Diego State, too.
“Keep a guy in front of you. Don’t let him get by you all the time when all hell breaks loose,” Fisher said. “When he does, have your hands above your waist and minimize the number of opportunities that they get.”
Experience counts. Seniors like Gasser and Notre Dame’s Connaughton and Jerian Grant benefit from years of practice.
Hand-checks might get called. Reach-ins get noticed.
“Jerian and myself, we might get in trouble for saying this, but we always argue with one of our assistant coaches over the amount of fouls that he calls on us during practice,” Connaughton said.
“But to learn in practice that there are little ticky-tack fouls that are going to get called if you put yourselves in a bad position, it helps not only us, but the younger guys on the team that you don’t want to play with fouling.”
Follow Genaro Armas at http://twitter.com/GArmasAP
AP Sports Writers Bernie Wilson in San Diego and Will Graves in Pittsburgh contributed to this story.
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