College, NBA / Aug 26, 2010 / 3:30 pm

Should you foul leading by three? Harvard has the answer

Duke's Nolan Smith & Jon Scheyer

If you don’t see it in the upcoming FIBA World Championship, you’ll no doubt see it countless times during the NBA and college basketball season: Your team is up by three points in the final seconds, the bad guys have the ball, and going into that last possession, the question is whether or not your team should foul.

It comes down to this: Do you foul and put your opponent on the line for two shots (where they can’t possibly tie the game), or let them take a lower-percentage triple and bank on a miss?

Each coach has their own philosophy. Phil Jackson, for example, almost never chooses to foul, whereas some coaches always tell their players to foul. Often it’s circumstantial: Does the other team have a hot three-point shooter? Do they have a notorious closer like Kobe? Are your defenders good enough to put up resistance but also poised enough to not foul while somebody is taking a three?

A recent study by John Ezekowitz posted on the Harvard Sports Analysis site tried to answer the big question, with a focus on college basketball. Citing 443 examples of instances where teams had a chance to tie with a three in the final seconds, Ezekowitz writes:

Of the 52 teams that committed a foul, six lost the game for a winning percentage of 88.46%. Of the 391 teams that did not foul, 33 lost the game for a winning percentage of 91.56%. Both a two sample t-test of proportion and a Chi-squared test fail to reject the null hypothesis that there is a difference in winning percentage between the two strategies. In this sample, teams that did not foul won slightly more often. For the less statistically inclined, this means that there is no significant difference between the two strategies.

In other words, there’s no statistical evidence that one strategy is clearly better than the other. So we’re back to square one: It’s up to the coach’s preference and comfort level with his team.

What would your strategy be if your team is up three in the final seconds and the other team has the ball?

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  • http://uoregon.edu sans

    it’s cheap sauce to foul intentionally for any reason other than to stop the clock….play defense….move your feet, don’t reach, stay in front of your guy, and 90% of the time refs are aware when a player is trying to draw contact and should no-call offensively initiated contact….

    to me it’s all about sportsmanship, and fouling to prevent a tie is not sporting; and, although I do not call it this way when it happens unless there is clearly no play made on the ball (because this is the norm within officiating regarding late-game fouling), I feel that situations intending to deprive a player/team of a chance to tie are detrimental to the integrity of the game; and moreso than a common foul, late-game non-clock-saving fouls truly and intentionally eliminate competition creating an action-less contest (a heading for a technical foul): I feel that the defined rule-book penalty for intentional fouls (10.3.6 NFHS) should be applied, i.e. two shots (or one at the pro level, as in a Flagrant 1 unsporting foul) and the ball at the point-of-interuption.

    that was a handful to express…don’t get me started on flopping…

  • marcus the great

    ugh, decision sciences….

    **thumbs down**

  • Heckler

    I HATE when teams foul in that situation. it CHEAPENS the game. afterall, why foul?…a 3 is NOT going to BEAT you; only tie.

    and if you foul, a team is going to (try) hit the 1st free throw and then miss the 2nd and still give themselves a chance to tie anyway.

    and if you foul and they make both free throws, if there is time left, they are now going to foul you back in return. now as a coach, what you’ve done is take the pressure off the other team to make a 3, and instead you put pressure on your own players to make FTs. and if your playing a road game, you def dont wanna do that.

    I understand why a coach would foul, but it seriously CHEAPENS the game…..

  • http://bt.davka.info/ SparkyJ23

    I always wonder why teams don’t just defend the 3 pt line and empty the paint to give up the 2

  • damn maths!

    There’s a mistake out there. If you don’t foul and the shot goes in, the game goes to the overtime. In overtime you can win or you can lose. They should have compared the % between wins and overtimes, not losts…

  • Me

    I don’t see a problem with it. I’d foul.

    that would make it even easier than fouling and put the pressure on your team like post 3 says. That’s actually the worst thing to do.

  • http://dimemag.com/2010/08/should-you-foul-when-leading-by-three-harvard-study-has-the-answer/ Mike

    Well if a team fouls they put pressure on THEMSELVES cuz they gotta still make free throws just play D

  • collaboro

    good article, Interesting no statistical diff. i would say it’s dynamic based on team you’re playing against and who has the rock.

  • Darius

    I dont foul & hope my team has confidence in themselves to get a stop. If you cant stop 1 possesion then u shouldnt be playing anyway

  • Rockco

    I foul like i was Rasheed!

  • K Dizzle

    I’d foul Rondo if the Celts even thought about givin him the ball in that situation…..Same with Lebron

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=789808568 frankiewilde

    it seems only hindsight makes this an argument…

  • Dave

    sans and some of u guys are kind of crazy when it comes to being cheap. The name of the game is to play to win and if kobe is bringing the ball up down by three off a rebound and a couple seconds left u better foul the guy and prevent the tie. You dont want that guy proving his legacy against you. I look at my memphis tigers 08 team and in the championship game we had the game in the bag if two things happen. 1: CDR makes at least one of his 2 fts and drose drope both provided that cdr already missed and 2: CALIPARI SCREAMED TO FOUL!!! They didnt foul and guess what happens… bam! Game tied and Kansas goes to overtime with the momentum of should have loosing the game but due to capitolising on the mistakes of memphis they get the chip. YEESH

  • http://myspace.com/40sand9s Loc

    Man up and play some defence.

  • oo wee

    i say definitely foul, especially if you have knockdown free throw shooters on your team. who care’s about being ‘cheap’ if it’s within the bounds of the game. you guys are idiots. this is a coaching decision. this is a percentages decision, a strategic decision, not a ‘cheap’ vs ‘not cheap’ decision.

  • http://uoregon.edu sans

    @ oo wee

    see, “cheap” to me = not legal…against the rules, specifically within the rulebook against the rules, however, refs don’t call it this way enough.

    Same with flopping…faking a foul is considered a technical in the rulebook, but refs let it slide and it continues….faux reel, shit should change…

  • http://uoregon.edu sans

    and I’ve tried,,,,I get less AAU games now because, once upon a time, I was on a mission to call flopping a technical and got reprimanded…

  • rav

    @damnmaths is right.

    the guy needs to re-do his study, cua even if you hit the three, you could end up losing the game (even not in overtime as well, as the other team could still theoretically hit a shot in regulation if there’s time left on the clock.)

  • kowtz

    Agree on the cheap tactics…

    Same thing as fouling shaq on end games… This may be the reason why Phil hastes the strategy…

    Then again, if it’s a game 7 of the NBA Finals, or any finals game for that matter… I’m willing to be Cheap… Nasty even…