Fouling in a Tie Basketball Game Is Unorthodox but Oftentimes the Right Move

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystJanuary 31, 2020

Butler's Kamar Baldwin and Marquette's Koby McEwen
Butler's Kamar Baldwin and Marquette's Koby McEwenDarron Cummings/Associated Press

When Marquette's Brendan Bailey intentionally fouled Butler's Kamar Baldwin with 18 seconds remaining in a tie game on Jan. 24, everyone freaked out, calling it a horrific, indefensible decision. Marquette head coach Steve Wojciechowski apologized after the game, saying he thought his team was down by two when he instructed his man to give the hack.

Here's the thing, though: It was the right move, and it's one that more teamsespecially underdogsshould consider implementing.

When the best argument for doing something in sports is "That's the way it has always been done," it's probably time to entertain some alternatives. With that in mind, allow me to paint you a picture that we see hundreds of times throughout the course of a men's college basketball season:

It's a tie game.

There are 20 seconds left on the game clock.

The shot clock is off.

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The team with the ball calls a timeout to draw up a plan, even though everyone in the building already knows what's going to happen. They'll casually dribble near half court until there are roughly six seconds remaining, followed by an iso set in which the best scorer attempts some off-balance, contested mid-range shot or three-pointer with almost no time left.

More often than not, the shot is a brick and the game goes to overtime. But it goes in often enough that you have to wonder why the defense resigns itself to this fate over and over again.

People frequently complain about the approach on offense in these situations. As The Athletic's Seth Davis tweeted at the end of regulation in the Kentucky vs. Texas Tech game this past Saturday: "Once again teams run terrific offense until they really really need a bucket. Then it's dribble too long and force a bad one."

Though it sometimes results in a low-percentage shot, it is clearly the high-percentage strategy.

If you run "real" offense, any number of things could go wrong. You might fumble the ball away, commit an offensive foul or simply lose track of time, either waiting too long to get off a shot or going too fast and giving the opposition enough time to tie or win. With the "hero ball" approach, maybe your shot only goes in 30 percent of the timea pure guesstimate; it might actually be closer to 15 or 45 depending on who's shooting and who's defending—but your odds of losing the game in regulation are almost nil.

The inverse, of course, is the defense has virtually no hope of winning in regulation if it picks its nose while the offense dribbles out the clock 45 feet from the hoop.

Maybe you get lucky, the offense scores too early and you get to set up either a baseball pass or a three-quarter court heave with a two-point deficit and less than a second remaining. Michigan had that opportunity Saturday after watching Illinois' Ayo Dosunmu dribble around for 20 seconds before draining a jumper with 0.5 seconds to go. Some lot of good it did the Wolverines, though, as the baseball pass bounced off the hands of the intended receiver and the game ended.

Of course, that's usually how those opportunities play out. There's a reason the Grant Hill-to-Christian Laettner pass is still remembered as one of the most incredible moments in NCAA tournament history. Those baseball passes are almost never successful.

Realistically, the defense in those end-of-regulation situations is hoping for a missed shot and another five minutes to try to get the win in overtime.

So instead of complaining about the team with the ball not running offense, it's high time we start holding teams responsible for not playing defense.

In the Kentucky-Texas Tech game mentioned above, the Red Raiders did just that.

Kentucky got the ball with 18 seconds remaining in a tie game. Rather than sitting on its heels and waiting for Tyrese Maxey to make his potential game-winning move, Texas Tech brought pressure, made the Wildcats shoot with nine seconds left and regained possession with enough time to dribble into the frontcourt and get off a decent shot. Neither attempt went in and the Red Raiders would eventually lose in overtime, but there's no question they gave themselves a better chance at victory by playing defense.

At the very least, it'd be fantastic if teams started doing that.

In certain situations, intentionally fouling to get the ball back also makes a lot of sense.

One clear example where this should have been put into practice was Nebraska at Rutgers on Saturday.

Rutgers' Geo Baker
Rutgers' Geo BakerRich Schultz/Getty Images

Per kenpom, Rutgers was favored 77-63 and had a 90 percent chance of victory. The Scarlet Knights were 13-0 at home. Nebraska was 0-6 in true road games. The odds of the Cornhuskers winning in overtime were rather slim. Thus, when Rutgers got an offensive rebound with 17 seconds left in a tie game, Nebraska should have fouled and hoped for the best with a game-winning shot attempt when it got the ball back.

Instead, the Cornhuskers let Geo Baker make a three-pointer with one second remaining, effectively ending the game.

Fouling in those situations is a common strategy in the international game, and a few years ago, Ken Pomeroy did a study on its effectiveness in the college game and when it should be put into practice, mathematically speaking.

After a metric ton of calculations regarding pregame winning probability, free-throw percentages and the like, Pomeroy concluded: "We're only likely to see this strategy implemented by a coach who isn't concerned about his reputation. However, it's a strategy that can be useful, especially for underdogs who figure to struggle in five more minutes of action."

And that's just assuming averages. What if the opposing team has a particularly clutch scorer? Or what if your offense is significantly better than your defense?

A few months before Pomeroy published his study, I had the opportunity to ask Villanova head coach Jay Wright the philosophical question of fouling in a tie game.

"There are a lot of coaches that believe they can outscore you," Wright said. "If that's your philosophy, you really should foul in those situations. It does make sense. Because you're trusting that you'll execute better on your end of the court.

"If we were playing a really good offensive team like Creighton [when it had Doug McDermott], and we had the ball for the last shot, I wouldn't want them to foul us. I'd want to get the last shot so we wouldn't have to defend them."

Now, let's circle back to that Marquette-Butler game.

Playing on the road, Marquette was a sizable underdog6.5 points, according to VegasInsider. Butler has one of the best isolation scorers in the country in Baldwin, and he was red-hot at this point, scoring two-point buckets on each of Butler's previous three possessions. Allow that guy to run out the clock before attempting a buzzer-beater against Marquette's mediocre defense and he's probably going to drain it at least 40 percent of the time.

Let's just call it an even 40, though, meaning there's a 40 percent chance Marquette loses in regulation. Considering the Golden Eagles were a road underdog, there's also probably a 60 percent change they lose in overtime if Baldwin misses. These are obviously rough estimates, but that puts Marquette's "no foul" win probability at 24 percent.

By fouling, Marquette guaranteed itself another possessionprovided Butler doesn't get an offensive rebound on a miss of the second free throw. Even if Baldwin makes both free throws to take a two-point lead, Marquette is a 40 percent three-point shooting team and had already made 11 triples on the night.

Marquette's Markus Howard
Marquette's Markus HowardJoe Robbins/Getty Images

Factor in the possibility that Baldwin misses one or both free throws so Marquette could win with a deuce, and the win probability with fouling has got to be greater than 24 percent.

As it turned out, Baldwin missed the second free throw, Marquette inexplicably forced up a contested three with 10 seconds left, fouled Baldwin again and forced overtime on a three-pointer on the ensuing possession when Butler forgot to foul up three with less than five seconds remaining.

Speaking of which, remember when that strategy was taboo?

Back in 2004, Jay Bilas wrote an entire column for ESPN about why it's a bad idea to foul up three. That was the general notion back then.

Sixteen years later, if you don't foul up three, there's going to be a Twitter mob coming for your head. North Carolina recently lost a game to Clemson in which the Tar Heels didn't foul up three, and Roy Williams said after the game, "If I die tomorrow, 20 years from now this will be the biggest regret I have in 32 years as a coach."

Maybe a decade or two from now, people will start to see the merit in fouling in a tie game.

By no means is it always the right approach. Free-throw percentages, time remaining and how much you trust your offense in a do-or-die possession are all key factors to consider. And there's probably never going to be a situation where it makes sense for a team like Virginiaelite on defense; not so much on offense—to give away points.

However, there are plenty of scenarios in which it's a viable tactic. The sooner people begin to accept that, the sooner coaches might be willing to give it a whirl without fear of pitchforks and torches.


Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.