Although it's oversimplifying the Illinois Fighting Illini's success and failure quite a bit, if you need one thing to watch in their game against the Toledo Rockets in the third round of the 2013 WNIT tonight it's probably senior forward Karisma Penn.
And really, it's Penn's fouls in particular.
The Illini's 6-foot-2 forward has fouled out of eight games this season and the team's record in those games is 1-7. Of the Fighting Illini's remaining six losses, Penn had four fouls in four of them. Suffice it to say that Illinois simply isn't very good when Penn is playing in foul trouble.
The explanation for all of that actually leads back to a positive: Penn is a very good shot blocker for her size (5.1%, 52nd nationally) and even better at generating steals (4.1%). In other words, the fouls are at least partially the result of defensive aggression and, compared to other foul prone players, she does make up for it by making plays on the ball.
So do those other defensive contributions outweigh the cost of those fouls? Probably not.
Penn accounted for 34.88% of the Illini's overall statistical production this season (with the caveat that second-leading scorer Adrienne GodBold missed 11 games). In addition to being the team's leading scorer with 19 points per game, Penn is the team's most efficient scorer (57.08% true shooting percentage) and best offensive rebounder (11.04%), which means they not only miss out on her as a primary scoring option but also miss out on potential second chance scoring opportunities.
Looking past the WNIT to the 2013 WNBA Draft, Penn appears to have the profile of a solid WNBA contributor on the surface. The one major red flag for her as a pro prospect is that she's an inefficient ball handler: her pure point rate of -7.43 is well beneath the threshold for a successful post prospect. The root of that for her is actually as much about her turnover ratio (16.34%) as it is about a rather low assist ratio (6.14%) - if she's not scoring, she simply hasn't been a very efficient player with the ball in her hands.
Of course, the big question is how much of those ball handling numbers matter for her transition to the next level: in college, she's the number one option and sees double teams when she gets the ball; in the WNBA, it's unlikely that she'd be seen as a go-to player and, in having to carry less of a load, she could become more efficient.
Ultimately, it's not entirely clear what Penn's professional basketball future might look like - Ed Bemiss' player rater has her as a second round pick at best and that value projection does make sense when looking at her statistical profile. While she has some outstanding defensive numbers to her credit, she hurts her team by fouling out of games. While she is the team's go-to option offensively, her inefficiency with the ball can lead to empty possessions.
Nevertheless, while the fine details in her statistical profile might cast some doubt on her pro future, there's little question that the Illini absolutely need her to stay on the floor if they're going to advance in the WNIT.