Monday, February 11, 2013

Fouling fanatics

I'm getting a little tired of the tone of talking heads when discussing fouling in end of game situations. I understand this can be a good strategy in certain situations, but it's no guarantee of victory as the people I have heard recently seem to portray it to be. There seemed to be tons of this in response to the UW vs MI game. In that game both teams had fouls to give after the game was tied, and both coaches took criticism for not fouling. Since both Hardaway and Brust made ridiculous shots, those criticisms seem more valid to casual fans. Since end of game situations get all the publicity, every time someone makes a shot in this situation the criticism will come and be heard. What isn't heard is the 99% of the time those shots harmlessly miss.

Again, I don't have a problem with the fouling strategy, my problem is that people talk about it as if it is a sure thing that if a coach tells his players to foul, then victory is guaranteed. I don't think there is any significant difference in going either way. There are a ton of things that can go wrong when a coach tells his players to foul. In the Michigan game both coaches actually did instruct their players to foul in certain situations (if the player isn't shooting) but Bruiser didn't get the foul called, and MI didn't get a good opportunity. Basketball has a major human element that makes this strategy a lot harder than it sounds.

If UW had fouled as the clock got low, it wouldn't have eliminated OSU's chance for a game winning shot. The idea is that by fouling you break up the play they have called and force them to start over with an inbound pass. This in theory, will lead to a harder shot, and less chance to make it. I'm not sure this part of the theory is even correct, as many coaches (I'm thinking specifically of Izzo here) have a number of great in bounds plays that create good shots for their team. In any case I doubt the possibly worse shot created from this scenario makes a significant difference in win-loss outcome. The shot Hardaway took was very difficult and I find it hard to believe UW could have forced a much tougher shot than what he took.

On the MI side, Beilein wanted to foul being up 3 points with fouls to give. Seems good except Brust caught and got off the shot very fast and MI couldn't foul. If they had, MI risked flaw #2 in this theory- the refs fuck up. How much flak would Beilein have got if the refs we see mess up all the time, had called a foul on a half court shot that would have given UW 3 free throws to tie the game. Is MI better off letting a long prayer shot fly, or taking a chance a ref wants a little extra camera time.

How about when a team fouls when up 3 to send a team to the line for 2. There is still time left if they make both throws for a steal, or even worse what if the refs call a foul on the rebound of the 2nd miss and send them back to the line again. I could go on and on with examples of how players, and refs can screw things up in end of game situations when they foul. The bottom line is that there is a very good chance the team with the lead is going to win regardless of the strategy. If someone thinks there is a significant difference in winning based on the foul strategy they are overstating the case.


  1. Great post and I agree completely. I was going to do this exact post and may still do it just to get it out of my system. Since you were at the game you missed Dakich saying that the Badgers not fouling at the end of regulation was "the stupidest play [he's] seen in basketball in a long time." Gimme a break. I lost a lot of respect for him because of that asinine commentary.

  2. Here's what I said on a Badgers message board on this topic:

    The debate is valid, but I don't hear much of a "debate" going on. Dakich set the tone in real time when he called it the stupidest basketball play he'd seen in a long time. That's not a debate—that's laughable exaggeration. It was also bone-headed analysis.

    The notion seems to be that Wisconsin could have used its fouls to prevent Michigan from getting a shot off altogether. That's what Dakich said on twitter. That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard. At best, Wisconsin could have gotten them down to a situation where there's one or two seconds on the clock. At that point, it's still fairly easy to get off a contested jumper or a catch and shoot (or, ahem, an open layup!) that wouldn't be much, if any, more difficult that the shot the Badgers actually forced. And if they hit that, the game's over because the Badgers have left themselves no opportunity to get the ball back.

    Another missing argument in this debate is the fact that those fouls to give were still valuable in the likely scenario that the game goes to overtime. If the Badgers had been up one, then overtime isn't a plausible outcome and the fouls have no value. But in a tie game, overtime is the most likely scenario (see: Notre Dame vs. Louisville), and not being in the bonus for overtime is a very good thing. This has never even occurred to Dakich.

    Of course, fouling is also easier said than done. Bielein spent the entire timeout before Brust's shot saying, "foul foul foul foul foul foul foul..." But they couldn't do it! I think Bo has learned that he'd rather have his players execute the defense that they spend hours and hours practicing rather than mix things up for a crucial possession.

    So I'm fine with a debate, and I could be convinced that fouling in that situation slightly improves the overall odds of winning. But it's not a no-brainer, and Bo Ryan does not deserve the tenor of the criticism he's receiving for that play.

  3. I missed that comment from Dackich, but I did see a replay of him and Bo getting into it about this topic. Very annoying.

  4. And, regarding whether to foul when up 3, some more thoughts I posted on a message board:

    Andy Katz asked Bo Ryan about this a few weeks ago on a podcast with Seth Greenberg. Bo said he "hasn't" done it. He said they practiced it once a few years ago and it ended up leading to a four-point play—first FT good, second FT missed and tipped out for a made three. This seems to have spooked Bo.

    I know all the quants say the odds are better fouling, but I think coaches are uncomfortable because things can go wrong, and they don't like calling a play unless they practice it. And if they practice it that means there's something else they aren't practicing.

    The other day Virginia was up 3 at a deadball with about 5 seconds left against NC State. This is the prototypical time to foul. But NC State ran a guy around two screens who caught and shot in one motion. Jespersen played good defense and got a hand in the guy's face, and it was an airball. If Bennett's entire timeout defense had been, "we have to foul, we have to foul," that probably turns into three free throws, because there was absolutely no chance to foul without fouling him in the act of shooting.

    I also think the quants underestimate how hard it is to actually execute an intentional foul in those circumstances. If you're over-aggressive going for the foul, the guy might end up shedding you entirely, leading to an open look. Also, you never know when a ref will decide to take a game over and call an intentional foul. So there's a lot that can go wrong, and I don't have a problem with a coach saying, "let's make them beat us."

  5. Couldn't agree more. It's hypotheticals vs. reality. I like Socialism in a very similar fashion. Bo was spot on with his postgame with Dakich as well.

  6. One more point. Leaving aside the "strategy" aspect of this fouling fanaticism, I find the whole idea of intentionally fouling in these situations to be unsporting. The rules should not permit it. There's no other situation in sports where it's considered sporting (or ethical) to intentionally break the rules in this way. It's one thing to play aggressively and go for a steal (like Bruesewitz was doing). But I think the interpretation of intentional fouls should be broadened to encompass any non-basketball play, at least in the final minute of a period. It should be two shots and the ball.

    The downside would be that there'd be fewer comebacks in college basketball because it would be risker to use fouls to "extend the game." But overall this would make college basketball a better sport, in my opinion. So many games end with these interminable stretches of fouling and free throws without ever getting close or even remotely interesting. It's easily the most ridiculous aspect of the sport—that the final two minutes can take twenty minutes, even in a ten-point game.