To foul or not to foul – that is the question.
The situation is this. Your team is ahead by three points in the final seconds. The other team has the basketball. What do you do?
Do you foul the guy with the ball before he gets into a shooting motion? That play will send him to the line for two free throws but down by three points. He would likely have to make the first free throw, miss the second on purpose and then have his team get the rebound and score on a putback.
Or do you just play good defense, figure at worst you’re going into overtime, and go from there?
That situation helped decide the NCAA championship game in 2008, when Kansas hit a three in the closing seconds against Memphis. Then-Memphis coach John Calipari was yelling at his team to foul Kansas before the Jayhawks ever shot that three, but Memphis didn’t. Mario Chalmers then hit the tying three-pointer and Kansas won in overtime.
It has come up recently during home games with both Charlotte and Davidson. And in the NBA, with its 82 games, it happens multiple times every week.
I asked Charlotte resident Jay Bilas, one of the most prominent voices in college basketball, what he thought was the right move.
“I don’t think in college that there is a no-brainer solution,” Bilas said. “But I think on a percentage basis that fouling when you’re up by three points is the right way to go. I’ve looked at the numbers, and I think you foul if there are five seconds or less to go.”
I asked Hornets coach Steve Clifford what he does – and what the prevailing wisdom in the NBA is on the same question.
“It’s mixed in the NBA, just like in college,” Clifford said. “Our general rule is that we want to foul in that situation with eight seconds or less. If the opposing team is out of timeouts, we will foul with more time on the clock.”
I covered Davidson’s exciting win over Richmond Tuesday. Richmond was in the process of making a furious comeback with less than five seconds left and had the ball, down by three.
Davidson point guard Brian Sullivan had just missed a free throw that would have sealed the game. But then Sullivan redeemed himself by smartly fouling a Richmond player 25 feet from the basket, just before the guy could get up a shot. There were 2.4 seconds left, so it was the perfect time to foul.
“Brian made that decision,” Davidson coach Bob McKillop said. “Give him all the credit for it. But we had actually practiced that very situation (two days before).”
Sure enough, Richmond made the first free throw, missed the second on purpose but was in such a hurry to try and get the rebound that the Spiders committed a lane violation. Davidson then sealed the win with two more free throws.
McKillop said his philosophy on the “up three” decision has changed over the years.
“I’ve had to take a lot of courage pills to come to that point where I agree to do it,” McKillop said. “And I think fouling (properly) is hard to do.”
I've had to take a lot of courage pills to come to that point where I agree to do it.
Davidson coach Bob McKillop, on fouling when you’re up three in the final seconds.
Agreed Clifford: “It’s important to tell players how/when to foul. They should only foul if they’re confident it won’t be in the act of shooting.”
Said Bilas: “You don’t want to bring losing into the equation, and you can if you foul too early – say with 10 seconds or more. Another factor is the officials. In the NBA, I think those teams almost always foul in this situation. And let’s be straight – the officials are better in the NBA. They are used to calling it. In college, officials sometimes aren’t used to calling it. And if you have younger players who aren’t used to fouling, sometimes you are better off just allowing your defense to play.”
That’s what rookie head coach Mark Price – who starts three freshmen with the Charlotte 49ers – did earlier this month. But according to Bilas, Price also made the right decision because there was too much time left to purposely foul.
With Charlotte up three and 20 seconds to go, Price played straight-up defense against Old Dominion. ODU immediately hit a three-pointer to tie the game with 18 seconds left. Charlotte could not get off a good shot on its own last possession in regulation and ended up losing in OT.
As Price told me later: “I’m sure there were plenty of people out there thinking ‘Coach Price is an idiot!’ But you’ve got to go with your gut and go through those experiences. That’s just part of being a head coach.”
Yes, it is. And I think Bilas is right in this case. With five or fewer seconds left, better to go ahead and foul. Before that, though, just play the best defense you can.
Even though Memphis didn’t foul in 2008, it should have won that national title game. However, Memphis missed four of its final five free throws in regulation -- the last miss by future NBA star Derrick Rose -- to allow Chalmers a chance to tie the game.