King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Foul! Foul! You've got to foul! Two teams that didn't realize this are gone from the NCAA Tournament.


Salon Staff
March 19, 2007 8:00PM (UTC)

I never thought I'd say this about college basketball, and I think I'm going to say it and then go lie down, but: Why aren't teams fouling more at the end of the game?

What are teams up by three in the waning moments or down by two in the first half of the last minute thinking by not fouling?

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Just two examples from the second round of the NCAA Tournament this weekend: Butler had the ball and a two-point lead over Maryland with about 40 seconds to go, and Maryland didn't foul to lengthen the game. Ohio State got the ball trailing by three with about nine seconds left against Xavier, and Xavier didn't foul to prevent the Buckeyes from tying the game with a 3-pointer.

Not that one example of each proves anything definitively, but guess what Maryland and Xavier are doing next weekend. If you said, "Playing basketball," sit down. You're eliminated too.

Let's start with Maryland-Butler. A team leading by two -- as Butler was -- wants to run the clock down as much as it can. If it takes over with fewer than 35 seconds left, the length of the shot clock, the defense has to foul or the leading team will just run out the game. But with more than 35 seconds left, teams rarely foul. They routinely let their opponent kill most of the clock before putting up a shot that, if it goes in, will be a dagger.

It's crazy. When you're trailing, you want to lengthen the game. Your opponent wants to shorten it. Why would you let them?

Maryland let Butler dribble the shot clock down. It would have expired with about five seconds left in the game. "Don't need to foul," CBS analyst Bob Wenzel said, "but need to get the rebound."

Or, need to pull the ball out of the net with your team down by five with five seconds left. Have fun with that.

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There are three things that can happen if Maryland lets Butler wind the game clock down to six seconds, one second on the shot clock, and then launch a 3-pointer, which is what happened:

1. It's good. Now it's a five-point game, four or five seconds left. Game over.

2. It's no good, Maryland gets the rebound. Now the Terrapins are down by two, five or four seconds left, and they have to go the length of the floor and score. Could happen, but it's not a high-percentage play, to say the least.

3. It's no good, Butler gets the rebound. Now Maryland has to foul. Butler's shooting free throws with three seconds left. Make two, game over. Make one, Maryland has to go the length of the floor in three seconds and hit a three to tie the game. This is not a high-percentage play, in the sense that a lottery ticket is not a high-percentage investment.

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This last scenario is what happened. Maryland, in a mad dash up the floor, down by three with three seconds left, lost the ball. Game over.

There's no situation that gives Maryland good odds if the Terps don't foul early in the shot clock.

Now, here's the alternative: Foul right away. Worse-case scenario: Butler makes one free throw, misses the second, gets the rebound and now has the ball and a three-point lead with something like 35 seconds left. So Maryland fouls again.

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Next-worst case, or maybe it's the worst: Butler makes both free throws. Now it's a four-point game with about 35 seconds left, and Maryland has the ball. Either way -- down by three and on defense or down by four with the ball -- 35 seconds is an eternity in college basketball. It's two or three or even four pairs of possessions if you keep fouling. You can be down by four with 35 seconds left and win by six.

It's a no-brainer at that point to lengthen the game.

Even after the disaster that transpired for Maryland on the possession, Butler getting the offensive rebound and going back to the line with 3.6 seconds left, Wenzel said Maryland "played it perfectly. Plenty of time between shot clock and game clock, but they did not come up with the rebound."

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Yeah, they played it perfectly. If only they'd gotten the rebound, they'd have had a chance to race madly upcourt and try to score in three seconds. Just like what actually happened.

Listen, you know that highlight of UCLA's Tyus Edney racing the length of the court against Missouri and hitting the game-winning layup as time expires? They show it all the time during the Tournament. It happened in 1995. It's one of the most memorable plays of the last quarter-century. Edney had 4.8 seconds to work with.

So yeah, Maryland would have had the Bulldogs right where it wanted them if the Terps had only grabbed the rebound. All it would have taken is one of the greatest plays in history.

I'm not saying Wenzel's some kind of nut here. I think he's dead center in the college basketball mainstream here.

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The other example, Xavier not fouling Ohio State Saturday, was probably the talk of Ohio Sunday. The Buckeyes, top seed in the East, on the verge of being upset by an in-state school they routinely avoid, rebounded a missed free throw with nine seconds left in regulation, down by three. Xavier's players sprinted back on defense, allowing Mike Conley Jr. to dribble upcourt unmolested.

If you're not going to foul here -- and you should foul here -- at least guard the dribbler, make him take some time getting the ball upcourt, or make someone come help him, which keeps Ohio State from getting into its offense. Why am I having to explain this stuff?

You saw the rest on the highlights if you didn't see it live. Conley handed off to red-hot Ron Lewis, who buried a long, game-tying 3-pointer, one of those great Tournament moments. I was one of a dozen or so people watching a kitchen TV at a St. Patrick's Day house party and the room erupted when the ball hit the net. The sound of March: "Ohhhh!!!"

Ohio State won in overtime.

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Hello. Foul. Put Ohio State on the line. Take away the chance to tie the game. Some college coaches do this. A lot don't, for the same reason NFL coaches don't like to go for it on fourth down even when that's the high-percentage play: Because the coach gets blamed if it doesn't work.

If you let the other team come down and shoot a three, the players get blamed. "Well, we didn't stop the ball," the coach can say. Or, "We just can't let him get an open look like that."

You say "we" so it sounds like you're shouldering part of the blame, not throwing the kids off the cliff.

If you foul and the other team makes one free throw, misses the second, gets the rebound, then hits a game-winning 3-pointer -- and take a minute if you'd like to try to figure the odds on that scenario -- the talk-radio guys are going to blame you, the coach, saying all you had to do was trust your guys to play defense.

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Tennessee got into the same situation against Virginia. Up by three, 10 seconds left following a made free throw by the Vols. Tennessee fouled. Sean Singletary made both free throws, and Virginia fouled Tennessee's Chris Lofton, who made two to get the lead back up to three with five seconds left.

So here we go again. Virginia with the ball, down by three, five seconds left. Tennessee wanted to foul, but Singletary wriggled free! He got loose for a three, exactly what Tennessee didn't want. Oh no! Virginia faced the same fate as Xavier!

He missed.

Sometimes it works out not to foul, even if you wanted to. Nothing's a sure thing. But Tennessee had the right idea, and Xavier most assuredly did not. Neither did Maryland.

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Let this be a lesson, Sweet 16 survivors. It's simple. If the other team wants the clock to run, stop the clock. If the other team has to shoot a three, don't let it shoot a three.

Come back next Monday. I'll probably be explaining this stuff again to one of the 12 losers.

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Pool o' Experts standings [PERMALINK]

Fear the coin.

This column's Tournament Pool o' Experts is being dominated so far by Buster, coin-flippinest 4-year-old in the West, East, Midwest and South. Buster's quarter had a mind-boggling run of "heads" flips, resulting in a lot of picks of favorites. That and his handy pegs of Butler, USC and Vanderbilt, three of the five mild underdogs who made the Sweet 16, have given him a 50-point lead over the nearest competitor -- me.

And Clark Kellogg, and the NCAA selection committee. A 50-point lead is a little better than one game at this point, since third-round picks are worth 40 points each, but it looks impressive as hell. Buster's going out on a pretty thin limb by picking Butler over Florida, but then again, stranger things have happened, and he's got the favorite in six Sweet 16 games.

Here are the standings after two rounds. So far first-round picks have been worth 10 points, second-rounders 20. After the 40-point Sweet 16, correct picks in the last three rounds are worth 80, 120 and 160 points each.

Expert     Points     Total possible
1. Buster, Coinflip Weekly
520
1,520
2. King Kaufman, Salon
470
1,510
2. Clark Kellogg, CBS
470
1,510
2. NCAA Selection Committee
470
1,510
5. CBS.SportsLine.com users
460
1,500
6. John McCain, R-Ariz.
450
1,450
6. Luke Winn, Sports Illustrated
450
1,330
8. Yoni Cohen, YoCoHoops.com
440
1,400
9. Grant Wahl, S.I.
430
1,430
9. Seth Davis, CBS/S.I.
430
1,390
9. Stewart Mandel, S.I.
430
1,390
9. Rick Majerus, JSOnline.com
430
1,350
13. Tony Mejia, CBS.SportsLine.com
420
1,420
14. Gregg Doyel, CBS.SportsLine.com
410
1,410
15. Tony Kornheiser, Washington Post
350
1,270

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