To foul or not to foul?

Posted In Blog, News - By Alan Kelly On Thursday, January 2nd, 2014 With 1 Comment


The final seconds of last week’s George Mason victory over St. Mary’s College provided a situation that has become all too familiar to Mason fans. With six seconds remaining and the Patriots clinging to a three-point lead, the Gaels inbounded the ball beneath the Mason basket, needing to push the ball the length of the floor for an attempt at a game-tying three-pointer.

This scenario presents a much-debated coaching decision. Assuming your opponent is in the bonus, as St. Mary’s was, what do you do? Do you foul the ball-handler, and prevent any chance at a game-tying three-pointer, or do you defend and try to run out the clock or force a bad shot, knowing that at worst, you’ll get an extra five minutes? Do you play not to lose, or do you play to win? What if you foul, but you opponent intentionally misses the second free throw, gathers the rebound, and hits a three pointer to win the game?

Most Mason fans remember the 2009 NIT game at Penn State, when Jim Larrañaga chose not to foul, and Talor Battle tied the game. Mason went on to lose decisively in overtime, yet Larrañaga stood by his decision in postgame interviews — he didn’t believe in fouling up three. Period.

On Christmas Day in Hawaii, we saw something different. Coach Hewitt chose to play to win, rather than playing not to lose. As soon as the ball crossed mid-court, Bryon Allen fouled Stephen Holt. Holt intentionally missed the second free throw, but Anali Okoloji collected the rebound, and the game was effectively over, as the Patriots took a 65-63 win.

Paul Hewitt was asked about this situation back in October by College Chalktalk, along with several other A-10 coaches (it’s worth a read when you’re done here):

Paul Hewitt, George Mason: “Under three seconds left you foul. Other than that you play it out (defend). I think it is a situation you have to practice. If you do not foul properly you can give up three free throws. We played Rhode Island recently and had this situation. In the huddle our players all wanted to defend. Rhode Island took a three that went in and out and we held on to win. Steve Lappas, doing color commentary, looked at me as we left the floor, wondering what I did. In the locker room I told my players, that’s the end of listening to [their] late game suggestions.”

Sure enough, Allen fouled Holt with approximately three seconds remaining in the game.

This is an interesting mid-way position on the issue. If your opponent makes a three-pointer with more than three seconds left, then you have time to answer. But with less than three seconds left, the chances of your opponent being able to accomplishing anything with the rebound of a missed free throw would seem to be fairly low.

So, I wondered, are there any statistical analyses that can confirm or refute Hewitt’s position, like the analyses that have been done on the sacrifice bunt in baseball?

Not really.

Basketball statistician Ken Pomeroy looked at all situations between November 2009 and mid-February 2013 “where a team trailing by 3 took possession of the ball with between five and 12 seconds left.” He found that teams which chose to defend were 1.5% more likely to win in regulation than teams which chose to foul (93.5% versus 92.0%). Pomeroy goes on to list a number of reasons why fouling might not be as good an idea as it sounds. Another study by Harvard student John Ezekowitz likewise found only a slight (and statistically insignificant) difference between the two strategies.

Unfortunately, neither study includes an examination of any correlation between winning percentage and how late in the game the foul occurs.

Absent any statistical proof that supports a particular strategy, coaches have to make a decision based on the players and teams involved. Are my players capable of winning a five minute overtime period? Is there a player on the other team who is red hot right now and likely to hit a pressure three-pointer? And so on. I like the situational approach Hewitt has chosen, but only time will tell whether that choice is correct.

About - Alan Kelly is a 2010 and 2013 graduate of George Mason University and a former member of the Patriot Platoon. He had the memorable experience of being in the middle of the college decision process as George Mason's Final Four run unfolded. He currently resides in Northern Virginia.

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