Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Some cogent analysis

Jay Bilas is more than just the first notable Big White Stiff who played for Mike Krzyzewski at Duke (a group that includes forward/centers Bilas, Crawford Palmer, Erik Meek, Greg Newton, Joey Beard, Taymon Domzalski, Jay Bryan, Chris Burgess, and Shavlik Randolph -- tragically enough, most of those were McDonald's All-Americans or at least top 50 recruits). Instead, he's as cogent a college basketball analyst as any who works the game today. His resume includes working as an assistant under Coach K, working as a lawyer, and now working as an analyst.

The prevailing wisdom among basketball commentators is that if Team A is ahead by 3 in the waning moments, it should foul Team B on the floor before Team B's shooter can hoist a shot that may tie the game. Thus, Xavier failed miserably in failing to foul an Ohio Stater before the Buckeye could fling the game-tying triple that sent the game into overtime, where OSU won. Of course, if Xavier's player had hit his second free throw moments before the game-tying heave, the argument would have been moot (and The Monk's bracket would have been shot). On Monday, Bilas offered good reasons why the foul-before-the-three line of thinking is like most conventional wisdom: conventional, but unwise.

First, the refs may "let 'em play" and not call the touch fouls that the defender commits to try to get the opponent on the line UNTIL the offensive player is near or in his shooting motion -- that would net the offense THREE free throws, not two. The odds that an 80% free throw shooter (the best outside shooters tend to be good foul shooters) hits all three are about 51%; the odds that the same player nails the three-pointer is about 40% -- a solid mark for top three-point shooters.

Second, encouraging the foul can cause the player to make a mistake on his timing of the foul. Shane Battier of all players did that once.

Third, encouraging the foul causes the team to get out of its normal defensive pressure -- if the designated fouler misses the ballhandler, the shooter can escape and obtain an open shot. It's better to play the man straight-up. Indeed, one principle of Pat Riley's defense when he coached the Knicks was to always have a hand in the face of the shooter to prevent him from getting a good look at the basket and targeting the shot properly. Top shooters hit 40-45% of their three-pointers because they will get open looks in a regular half-court offense; in an end-of-game situation when they are closely guarded, the shooters have less chance for an open look and will hurry their shot or be less able to target the basket.

Coach K prefers to play out the situation and let the players rely on the primary defensive principles that they use at all times to prevent the tie game. That's the same approach he and Coach Knight use on offense -- they do not call timeout to set up a play (remember Texas Tech's road win over A&M this year -- the game winning play started with about 15 seconds left after A&M had tied the game, Tech took the ball out, went up court, set up its regular offense and got a clear shot that the player hit and Tech won).

Similarly, Coach Boeheim does not commit the two-shot foul in this situation -- in the title game against Kansas in '03, SU played its normal 2-3 zone and got a block against David Lee and then forced an off-balance shot by Kirk Hinrich in the last seconds of the game; in the '90 Maui Invitational title game, SU played a 1-3-1 zone to mark Indiana's outside shooters and prevented the tie even though back then the foul would only have resulted in a one-and-one free throw opportunity, not two shots.

All told, those game-tying three-pointers are dramatic, but they're not common.
Playing the odds means playing normal defense and let the players' training prevent the tie. Only the aberrations, like OSU pulling a tie out of its rear, make the alternative seem attractive.

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