Like any young players, Valparaiso big men Derrik Smits, Jaume Sorolla and Mileek McMillan hoped to get on the court as much as possible last year. Too often, they instead found themselves sitting on the bench. Often, this wasn't due to poor play. Instead, the Crusaders' trio of big men had to sit with foul trouble.
College basketball has cracked down on physical play over the past few years in an attempt to increase scoring, and that means stricter rules governing contact. Valparaiso couldn’t have been hit much harder by foul trouble last year, as the Crusaders committed the 16th-most fouls per game among 351 Division I teams. That meant Sorolla, Smits and McMillan couldn’t stay on the floor and couldn’t always play as aggressively as they wanted when on it.
“Obviously it plays a big role in how me and Jay (Sorolla) go at everything, because it doesn’t matter how many hours you put in — if you get two fouls in the first 30 seconds, you’re just sitting on the bench,” Smits said. ““There’s nothing that kills you more than sitting on the bench.”
Both the inconsistency of playing time and the fouls themselves caused problems. When Smits, Sorolla and McMillan needed to contest shots at the rim, they couldn’t be as aggressive if they knew they couldn’t pick up another foul.
At the same time, the actual fouls allowed opponents to parade to the free-throw line. According to KenPom.com, Valparaiso allowed the 15th-highest proportion of free throws to shots from the field in Division I last year. That held back an otherwise strong defense that ranked third in the Missouri Valley Conference in efficiency during league play.
The big men caused many of the problems, as McMillan, Sorolla and Smits committed 7.6, 6.1 and 5.3 fouls per 40 minutes, respectively. Valparaiso associate head coach Luke Gore, who spends a big chunk of his time working with the Crusaders’ bigs, said the issues in part stemmed from overuse of hands, but there’s a mental aspect, too.
“It was young big men setting a lot of illegal screens and fouling quickly,” Gore said. “We played three and four bigs (total) last year. So if your third big only knows he’s playing two minutes, sometimes he’ll pick up two quick fouls.”
Head coach Matt Lottich acknowledged that foul trouble can be “defeating (and) deflating,” and said the Crusaders have tried to address foul trouble. Valparaiso has made heavy use of drills that emphasize individual post defense and jumping straight up and down around the hoop. Gore said he thinks if the Crusaders cut their foul rate, they could ascend to top-ranked status among MVC defenses.
The fouls also contributed to Valparaiso’s offensive struggles, however, as countless illegal screens resulted in turnovers and time on the bench broke up lineups that worked. Valparaiso has also placed plenty of focus on decreasing its turnovers, and the double-jeopardy aspect of illegal screens makes eliminating them among the big men’s top priorities. Guards also play a role, as Gore said they must wait for the screener to arrive and get set.
“It’s kind of hard, because it puts you out in the open,” Smits said. “So we work a lot on making sure our guys all have the timing down, because pretty perfect, otherwise it’s an illegal screen or it could be a turnover. (Referees) love to call illegal screens on me and Jay, it’s crazy.”
Smits and McMillan said they understand the importance of remaining set and that fewer fouls overall would lift a major burden off the team. Last year’s experience could help, as coaches and players characterized illegal screens as the problem of a young basketball team.
“I think one of my problems last year was I was so sped up by the game, trying to move fast,” McMillan said. “I’ve learned more the rules of little small stuff that you can’t really do that you could get away with in high school.”
Gore said Valparaiso fouled less during practice this offseason and that eliminating just two or three fouls per game will pay off over the course of a whole season. At the same time, he doesn’t want his big men to lose their aggressiveness. As the Crusaders grow up, they hope they’ll get that balance right.
“When you teach, ‘Play hard, play hard, play hard,’ which I think we’re very good at playing hard, sometimes they confuse playing hard and fouling as one,” Gore said. “When you’re developing bigs, we don’t want it to take as long, but you have to be patient with them.”