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Day Four (03/19)

March 19, 2012
To Foul Or Not
Late-Game Strategy

by Kevin Pelton

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If there was one thing missing from the first weekend's NCAA tournament action, it was a defining game-winning shot. There were a few big shots, certainly, like Will Sheehey's go-ahead bucket in the closing seconds to knock off VCU and Jordan Taylor's shot clock-beating three, but no iconic Bryce Drew or Tyus Edney moment at the buzzer. It wasn't for lack of trying.

Five teams were presented the classic late-game strategic dilemma of whether to foul when leading by three in the closing seconds: Florida State (vs. St. Bonaventure), Kansas (vs. Purdue), North Carolina State (vs. Georgetown), Purdue (vs. St. Mary's), VCU (vs. Wichita State). None fouled, giving their opponents a chance to force overtime with a three. All won anyway.

I sense support for the intentional foul growing. To my recollection, radio analyst Pete Gillen and TV analyst Mike Gminski both spoke in favor of sending the opponent to the line. It's much easier to make that call from the broadcast booth, however, than from the sidelines. In fairness, each situation was unique. Purdue took possession with so little time (2.5 seconds) that an immediate shot was a worry for Kansas. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Wichita State's final possession began with 12 seconds left and a timeout, meaning the Shockers apparently planned to try for the quick two before the Rams' defense blew up their play. Because so much time was left, Shaka Smart probably never discussed intentionally fouling with his team.

I don't think it always makes sense to foul, but the strategy is much more effective in the NCAA because the ball does not advance to midcourt after timeouts. So not only is a catch-and-shoot situation less of an issue, it takes more time to run multiple plays in a scenario where the teams trade intentional fouls. If you really dislike the strategy, understandably so, I think the simplest way to make fouling less beneficial is to adopt the NBA model of advancing the ball in the college game.

As it was, both Purdue and North Carolina State had clear opportunities to foul to their benefit when ballhandlers were dribbling upcourt with less than six seconds on the clock:

The worst execution of all belonged to the Seminoles and the Bonnies. Florida State did not foul even when St. Bonaventure had the ball inside the arc in the closing seconds, but out of habit Da'Quan Cook shot a two-pointer, rendering strategy meaningless.

It's worth remembering that all five times faced with the decision on intentionally fouling ended up winning. No matter their strategy, teams leading by three in the closing seconds nearly always win. Only one of the five trailing teams (Georgetown) really got a particularly good look at the basket. To the extent they exist--and when College Basketball Prospectus contributor John Ezekowitz looked at the issue comprehensively in 2010, he found no significant difference between the results of the strategies--we're talking about the kind of marginal differences that might only show up once every 25 games or so.

Still, as long as intentionally fouling is an option, and can be achieved with limited risk of committing a shooting foul, it does appear to be the stronger solution and coaches that chase every edge to win close games ought to utilize it more frequently.

  • Besides the lack of buzzer-beaters, the end of games over the weekend were also marked by the application of little-known rules in key situations. Obviously, the most notable infraction was the lane violation by players off the lane committed both by North Carolina-Asheville in its attempt to make history by knocking off Syracuse and by Notre Dame a night later against Xavier. Like most observers, at least on Twitter, I don't recall ever seeing that form of lane violation enforced, but criticizing the referees for making an accurate call simply because it rarely comes into play or didn't seem to affect the play (in the case of the Fighting Irish) is silly. Any player who watched either of the two games will know better than to make the same mistake, and hopefully coaches will point it out to anyone who wasn't watching.

    The other crucial rule is the one that prevents players from running the endline when they inbound after an infraction. That's tricky because the passer can move laterally after a basket. Both St. Mary's on Friday and Cincinnati on Sunday saw players travel in this situation, forgetting they could not move. While the Bearcats overcame the late turnover, Clint Steindl's miscue might have made the difference in the Gaels' narrow loss to Purdue. The inbound violation is not exactly uncommon--I saw one opposing player called for it three times in a Seattle University game this season--but I can't remember it affecting such critical moments before.

  • The reason the Boilermakers had a chance to tie in the closing seconds on Sunday was because Kansas' Tyshawn Taylor dunked with 2.5 seconds left to put the Jayhawks up three rather than attempting to dribble out the clock. Taylor was roundly criticized on Twitter for the decision, but I can't work up much indignation. Taylor unexpected was put in the position when Kansas got a breakaway and had to make an instantaneous decision with the defense bearing down on him. Had Taylor been fouled with time on the clock and missed one of the two shot attempts (about even odds for a 69.1 percent foul shooter), the second-guessers would have criticized him for not taking the sure two points.
  • My esteemed colleague John Gasaway spent the weekend beating the drum on Twitter for reducing the number of timeouts, a popular sentiment given the lengthy ends to multiple close games. I'm a little less convinced, given that certain coaches already have a tendency to run out of discretionary timeouts long before the last minute. The happy medium might be to adopt an NBA-like rule limiting the number of timeouts that can be used in the last two minutes, or some other arbitrary time period. I'm not certain we have too many timeouts, but I am certain that it's frightening to look at the now-ubiquitous timeout tracker on the scoreboard and see both coaches still have four stoppages available in the final minute. If we spread them out a bit more, timeouts might not quite seem so painful.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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