One of the most popular topics of conversation among basketball coaches in the last couple of years has centered around the question of whether to foul an opponent when up by three points in late game situations.
This dilemma is faced by basketball coaches at every level of play, and it seems to be happening with increasing frequency. The issue has provoked strong opinions on both sides of the argument.
To set the scene: Your team is ahead by three points in the closing seconds of a game and your opponent has the basketball. Do you choose to defend and force your opponent to take the long range shot that could potentially tie the game? Or, do you foul your opponent and put them at the free throw line where only two points are possible? There is passionate debate surrounding that decision and it’s not as clear cut as it may appear.
I looked at the scores for four local conferences — Midwest Athletic Conference, Northwest Conference, Putman County League and Western Buckeye League — to see if I could decipher how many boys games may have encountered this scenario. At the conclusion of the regular season, 20 games in those leagues were decided by a margin of exactly three points. The chances are pretty good that a coach in those games was faced with the decision to foul or defend. There were also an additional 54 games in those leagues that were decided by one- or two-point margins and my bet is the decision to foul or defend came up late in many of those contests as well.
These statistics do not include games decided by larger margins that may have contained the dilemma late in the contest. I could point to Minster, a team that played a mind-boggling five overtime games this season. Chances are pretty good Mike Lee, their outstanding coach, had to address that scenario in at least a couple of those contests.
When I coached, my instincts were always to choose to defend the last play when up by three points. In my last game, the 2010 state championship final, that was exactly the situation we faced. (I promise this is the last time I bring up that game). We were up by three points and Orrville had the ball out of bounds with 14 seconds remaining on the clock. My assistants brought up the possibility of fouling but I rejected it. I thought there was too much time on the clock, and I was not confident we would be able to rebound an intentionally missed free throw. We defended well but Orrville was able to get off a last second 3-point shot that missed the mark. If that shot had gone in and Orrville found a way to win the game, I assure you, I would still be getting grilled by the always present Monday morning quarterbacks.
When faced with this late-game scenario there are a couple of things that have to be taken into consideration. One is how much time is actually remaining in the game. If you choose to foul your opponent and leave too much time on the clock, the decision can backfire. And in close games, just a few seconds can seem like an eternity. And you must make sure to foul your opponent before they begin their shot. I watched a game this year where the opponent was fouled in the act of shooting and calmly sank all three free throws to tie the game and then promptly stole the inbound pass and scored to secure the win. Their coach watched his team go from three up to two down in a matter of about four seconds. Think he might be second-guessing himself now?
The point is no matter what is decided, the scenario has to be practiced over and over again so it becomes second nature to your athletes. And remember, getting players to execute your plan in the closing moments of a tight game is not easy. As we prepare to enter the postseason tournaments, these games take on even more pressure. I can’t tell you how many times, during a late-game timeout, I looked into the faces of my young players in those intense, pressure-filled moments and understood this was not the time to get clever.
There is a large body of evidence online that supports both positions. One of the most recent studies comes from a Harvard undergrad in the university’s Sports Analysis Collective who published a study of 443 games where a three-point margin existed very late in the game. In 391 of those games the leading team chose not to foul and 358 of those teams won, yielding a 91.6 percent winning percentage. Of the 52 teams that chose to foul, 88.5 percent managed to win the game. The author of the report concluded there is no significant statistical difference between the two strategies.
I believe most coaches today make game-time decisions based upon their “feel” of the game at the moment. But as coaching evolves, calculations and analysis are becoming more evident in game planning and execution. There is a growing number of basketball coaches who are calling for the foul as part of their late-game strategy.
As we enter the postseason tournament, you can bet this scenario will make at least one appearance at each stage of the playoffs and the fate of a team’s success will depend on the outcome of the decision made.
If you were in the head coach’s shoes, what would you do?
(Contact Bob Seggerson via email to email@example.com)