FOUL OR DEFEND?
I just completed my second season as boys head varsity basketball coach at East Lansing High School. Our overall record is 32-10 during this time with one conference championship under our belt. We play in a very tough conference here in Mid-Michigan (CAAC Blue).
During my first season I was never in a situation where we were up by three, on defense with less than seven seconds to play in the game. This past season we encountered the situation three times! Two different times against the same team. Both games the same player made a three!
I kid you not.
Do you think the Basketball Gods are trying to send me a message?
The first time Colin Jones, a 6’4” sophomore from Holt high school sent the game into OT with a buzzer beater from the left-wing. (We went on to win in OT) The second time after Jones knocked down the shot from the same spot my point guard took the ball the length of the floor and was fouled at the top of the key. He made 1 of 2 free throws, we won the game.
As my friend Ray Lokar (@CoachLok, on Twitter) would say, “I was fortunate”.
The third time it happened to me, you would have thought I learned a lesson, right? Not exactly.
Playing at home, it was our last regular season game of the year. We found ourselves in the exact same situation. After I called a timeout I looked at my players in the huddle and asked, “Do you guys want to foul or defend?” They all said, “DEFEND!”
Before they took the court we went over a few details. I reminded them of the three-point shooters, not to foul them in the act of shooting and to rebound the miss!
We defended. The opponent shot an air ball.
Game over. East Lansing wins.
The ‘foul or defend situation has been a hot topic amongst basketball fans, media and coaches. Twitter and Facebook make it easy to connect with others to discuss the possibilities.
Bill Fenlon, men’s head basketball coach at DePauw University has written and published a fantastic piece on the situation and Luke Winn of Sports Illustrated has also written a wonderful article. I highly recommend both.
On February 28, 2012, after reading Fenlon’s thesis I decided to take matters into my own hands.
I was going to track every situation at the high school and college level the rest of the season.
I reached out on Twitter and Facebook for help. Scanning scores and watching games on TV during the last four weeks of the season, I was able to come up with 41 different situations from the 28th right up to the National Championship game between Kentucky and Kansas.
Here’s what I found.
As a coach you are hired to make decisions the entire game. It’s easy to second-guess a coach, especially if you have never coached or played. It’s a lot easier sitting in your living room watching a game and screaming, “FOUL, FOUL, FOUL!” then it is if you are the head coach on the bench faced with this decision.
When I informed people about the study one media member tweeted back on Twitter, “this is such a no-brainer, the question insults a chimp’s intelligence.”
He also added, “Is it fear, pride, or stupidity?”
I can’t speak for anyone else but my reason behind defending is I trust my defense because we work hard on stopping the other team in practice and I’m afraid an official will call the foul intentional.
During the 41 situations I studied, nine teams decided to foul. Eight of them won the game. Detroit Country Day is the only team that lost; but their strategy worked, they just had a brain fart after securing the rebound on the missed shot.
Country Day led by three and fouled a Romulus player with just three seconds remaining. The Romulus player made the first free throw and missed the second on purpose. A Country Day player grabbed the rebound but for some strange reason forgot how much time was left on the clock. The young man grabbed the board and walked out of the lane. He was called for travelling.
Romulus took the ball out-of-bounds under the basket and hit a three-point shot to win the game.
During the study, 32 teams decided to defend. Eight teams hit a three to tie the game and send the game into overtime.
During the NCAA tournament ESPNU hosted a roundtable filled with current and ex-coaches. The group spent time discussing what they would do in this situation. Bob McKillop, head basketball coach at Davidson had some interesting thoughts so I tracked him down.
“We spend so much time in practice on defense, then come game time players look me in the eye and say, ‘now you want us to foul’?”
I can just hear you now, ‘well why not practice fouling during the week at practice’?
Coach McKillop has your answer; “practicing it is difficult. It presents too many problems.”
McKillop also talked about the ‘trust factor’ to get a stop. “It feels much more comfortable to play defense.”
The Kansas Jayhawks were involved in three different situations during the study. Twice they elected to defend and the opponent missed the three. Against Ohio State in the National semi-final game, Bill Self decided to foul Buckeye point guard Aaron Craft. Craft made the first free-throw but was called for a lane violation after missing the second. (It must be noted that Craft was able to throw the ball against the front of the rim and grab the rebound).
Florida State was also involved in the ‘Foul or Defend’ situation three times. All three times Leonard Hamilton elected to defend. All three times they got the stop.
Let’s look at what happens when you foul.
Number one, the team shooting the free throws needs to make the first shot. They then need to miss the second shot on purpose, grab the rebound and score.
On March 9th of this year during the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden the Cincinnati Bearcats fouled Syracuse. Dion Waiters made the first and accidentally made the second, oops.
The Bearcats inbounded the ball and the clock ran out. Bearcats win. Strategy of fouling worked.
If you defend, the worst that can happen is you go into overtime, right? Out of 32 situations, the offensive team hit a three-point shot eight times.
“Results in OT are irrelevant. Strategy either worked or it didn’t.” Said Coach Lokar.
If you decide to foul, you better be a good rebounding team. Everyone needs to box out and secure the board. You also better be a smart team too.
Most coaches I spoke say you need to practice this situation. It would be a disaster if your player on defense goes to foul and the player is in the act of shooting and is awarded 3 foul shots or worse, he makes the three and a chance to win the game with a free-throw.
Niles boys head varsity basketball coach Todd Pawielski was once burned for not fouling and regretted the decision afterwards, “I will never let this happen again,” said Pawielski after an opposing player hit a three to force OT.
Sure enough Coach found himself in this same situation a couple of years later this time in the State tournament against Kalamazoo Central.
“In the huddle I told the kids we were not going to give up a three – point shot; that we were going to foul with around five or six seconds left.”
Niles fouled with two seconds remaining.
A K’Zoo player stepped to the line and made the first shot. Niles then called a timeout. “We reminded our kids to get physical on their blockouts, remind them of Central’s tendency to push inside guy in back. We told our kids to get a great base and that is was going to be war on this shot with no chance of a foul being called.”
K’Zoo missed the second shot, Niles rebounded, ball game over.
Strategy to foul, worked.
Coach Todd says you need to work on it if you expect for it to be effective.
“This is something we work on in practice. We have to show kids how to foul, make sure it is not intentional, make sure to foul when opponent is not in act of shooting.”
The keys are rebounding and to practice the situation of fouling.
“Fouling in this situation is something the kids are used to…we practice it and have done it 3 or 4 times in games the last 3 seasons. It has always worked for us.”
It must be noted that I was never a ‘Math’ guy. I failed it in college on a couple of occasions. But the odds clearly favor fouling. So why do we see more teams defending and not fouling?
DeWitt High School head boys varsity coach Ron Marlan wanted his team to foul against St. John’s. “Normally I don’t like to foul but they had one player who had made a lot of 3′s in the game.”
St. John’s called timeout to set up a play and Coach Ron gave his team the defensive strategy.
“We told them to foul on the catch, not on the shot.”
As St. John’s took the ball out-of-bounds on the sidelines, DeWitt put their tallest player on the ball.
“They made a bad pass and their player did not get a clean catch. He fumbled it a little as he was falling out-of-bounds so we didn’t foul.”
Off-balance, falling out-of-bounds long three, have to take your chances, right?
“He turned and threw it in. A no-look bank shot from in front of their bench.” Said Coach Ron.
Luckily DeWitt won in overtime.
A high major D-1 assistant coach told me, “The high percentage play is to foul.”
So there you have it. Put yourself in the same situation. Up three, on defense, less than seven seconds to play. Are you fouling or defending?
After getting burnt twice this past year, the first opportunity that comes our way next season, I’m fouling regardless of what my players say. But before we do that, we will work on it in practice.