Star Michigan guard Trey Burke collected two personal fouls in the early minutes of the National Championship game against Louisville and he was promptly benched and sat out most of the remaining first half.  The announcers didn’t bother to say why because its common wisdom that you don’t want your best players fouling out early.

But the common wisdom requires some scrutiny because on its surface it actually looks absurd.  You fear your best player fouling out because then his playing time might be limited.  So in response you guarantee his playing time will be limited by benching him.  Jonathon Weinstein once made this point.

But just because basketball commentators, and probably even basketball coaches, don’t properly understand the rationale for the strategy doesn’t mean the strategy is unsound.  In fact it follows from a very basic strategic idea:  information is valuable.

Suppose the other team is scoring points at some random rate.  If they are lucky they score a lot and if they are less lucky they score fewer.  If the other team scores a lot your team should start shooting threes and go for short possessions to catch up.  If the other team scores fewer you should go for safer shots and run down the clock. But you only know which of these you should do at the end of the game.  If your best players are on the bench at that time you cannot capitalize on this information.

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