Let’s imagine I am in charge of hiring UNLV’s next basketball coach. It is terrifying. So, let’s make a hire most of the fan base would hate, but I would love.
Todd Golden from San Francisco would be my coach.
He has only been a head coach at the division I level for two seasons and he hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament. But he’s great. Golden is one of the most analytically advanced coaches in college basketball.
Last season Golden helped San Francisco extract extra value from end of half scenarios by using math.
At the end of the first half against Pacific, Golden had his team intentionally foul the opposing point guard with 12 seconds left. That point guard was shooting 22 percent on free throws entering the game. And Pacific was still in the one and one, making it even less likely Pacific would score points.
Here is how Golden’s Director of Basketball Operations Jonathan Safir explained it to NBC Sports: “The last possession of a half is less valuable than others by nature. It’s almost always against a set defense in a non-transition opportunity where you want to shoot in a specific time period. So we call that last possession 0.8 xPPP [expected points-per-possession].
“So if we don’t foul, they win the end of the half 0.8 to 0.0. By fouling a 22 percent free throw shooter, their xPPP becomes 0.27 points and we get the ball back for the 0.8 xPPP possession. So we win the final 12 seconds 0.8 to 0.27. That’s a swing of 1.33 xPPP.”
It is possibly my favorite answer in the history of basketball.
Basically San Francisco could have just played defense with the shot clock off. But Golden and his staff created an extra offensive possession (that resulted in a made three) and the only risk was a 22 percent shooter getting free throws.
It is using math to find small edges in game.
Golden did it again in a higher profile situation. San Francisco was on the verge of upsetting BYU with a two-point lead and 22 seconds to play. BYU had the ball and San Francisco intentionally fouled.
They fouled Yoeli Childs, who was shooting 59 percent from the free throw line entering the game (and had just returned from injury). Plus it was a one and one scenario, lowering BYU’s expected points.
Childs missed the front end of the one and one and San Francisco walked away with a win.
Golden discussed the strategy on the Solving Basketball podcast, where he explained that by fouling Childs the worst-case scenario was he his team got the ball back in a tie game.
But the math implied Childs would not make both free throws and San Francisco would get ball back with their lead intact.
San Francisco has not taken off under Golden. They went 22-12 in his first season, losing to Gonzaga in the WCC title game (and were not expected to make the NCAA Tournament). Then USF regressed to 11-14 this season, but still ranked 100th in Ken Pom (UNLV has had one top 100 Ken Pom season in the last six years).
At 35 years old with limited head coaching experience, he fits Desiree Reed-Francois’ type. But I don’t know if he would excite a single member of the UNLV fan base.
But I would be pumped, just to hear things like expected points per possession in press conferences.