Rand: To foul or not to foul at end of the game

  • Updated: February 10, 2013 - 11:03 PM

A great basketball debate was sparked again over the weekend when Wisconsin's Ben Brust hit a buzzer-beating three-pointer against Michigan to tie a game eventually won by the Badgers.


Wisconsin's Ben Brust, top, celebrates after hitting a 3-point shot in the final second of regulation against Michigan in an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Feb. 9, 2013, in Madison, Wis. Wisconsin defeated Michigan 65-62 in overtime.

Photo: Andy Manis, Associated Press

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A great basketball debate was sparked again over the weekend when Wisconsin's Ben Brust hit a buzzer-beating three-pointer against Michigan to tie a game eventually won by the Badgers.

The dilemma: In that situation, is it a better strategy for the team leading by three points to play straight-up defense or commit non-shooting fouls so the opponent theoretically will not have a shot at tying the game?

The math, at least according to one interesting report, says fouling -- which fans of the leading team often scream for -- is the way to go. A high school coach (ironically located in Michigan) started a study this year of college games in which a team was ahead by three points with seven seconds or fewer remaining.

He found that in 259 cases in the 2012-13 season through late January, as reported by sportingnews.com, the leading team played straight-up defense and gave up a game-tying three-pointer in 46 cases (18 percent of the time). The leading team purposely fouled the opponent just 20 times, but only once (5 percent) did the trailing team tie the score.

On the flip side, strategy is one thing. Fouling is not as easy as it sounds.

In the Michigan-Wisconsin game, for instance, Michigan had the perfect set-up: 2.4 seconds left and fouls to give (meaning a non-shooting foul wouldn't even result in free throws). Coach John Beilein said the strategy was to foul. But Brust used his speed and quickness to catch the inbound pass and get off his desperation heave. It was a low-percentage shot, but likely a better look than if Michigan had been able to foul, which would have drained the clock and forced a new inbound play.

There are dangers, too, if the leading team is over the foul limit. Foul too soon (say, up three with 15 seconds left) and the opponent could make two free throws, foul quickly, and if the leading team misses one or both attempts, it's suddenly a brand new game. Or a savvy player sensing a defender is intent on fouling could get into position for a shot. A shooting foul, presumably behind the three-point line, results in three free throw attempts that could tie the score.

Even if everything is executed properly, the trailing team can tie the score (or take the lead) by making the first free throw, missing the second, grabbing the offensive rebound and making a two-pointer or three-pointer.

Still, the math from the Michigan coach and similar studies shows fouling tends to be the higher-percentage play. But a mixture of all that could go wrong, plus a healthy dollop of traditional wisdom, prevents more teams from fouling with three-point leads in late-game situations. Until more teams foul late with success, thus creating a new widespread consensus, fans can expect to enjoy a healthy number of buzzer-beating, game-tying threes.

So maybe it isn't all bad the way it is.


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