Welcome to a five-part series looking at the greatest debates in the basketball world today. I'll break down the arguments, toss in some basketball history and throw my own two cents into the equation.
Our first topic is one of the most hotly debated topics in basketball among coaches and fans - whether or not to defend the three-pointer when leading by 3 points at the end of the ball game or prevent the potentially tying shot by fouling the dribbler.
It is amazing how often this particular situation plays out, especially in March when so many games come down to the final possession (this situation can also play out in the NBA, but less often because of the ability to move the ball to half court with a timeout).
In last year's NCAA tournament, Xavier decided to defend Ohio State up three points instead of fouling, gave up a game-tying shot and lost in overtime. In my own coaching career, I ordered a foul on the dribbler with my team up 3 only to watch my instructions carried out while the opposing player heaved up a half-court prayer. Sure enough, the kid was awarded three shots and made them all to send us into overtime. Luckily, we won the game in the second overtime period.
People tend to think that coaches ought to foul in this situation, but fail to do so because of the fear that it might go wrong (see my situation). The strategy of fouling is simply this - instead of trying to defend one shot, force the other team to make a free throw, intentionally miss the second, grab the rebound and put it back into the basket to get the necessary three points.
Let's break down the arguments on both sides of this debate:
Why Defend Instead of Fouling
1) Defenses are made to defend shots, not commit fouls.
While the idea of fouling a dribbler sounds easy enough, there is plenty that can go wrong. If the dribbler should suddenly become a shooter in the moment of the foul, he now gets three shots at the line to tie the game. There is no coach in America who would rather give up three free shots from 15 feet to tie to the game vs. one defended 19.9 footer.
There is also the chance that the fouler might be over-aggressive and commit an intentional foul in this situation. That would mean two free throws as well as the basketball. While it is difficult to imagine a college referee making such a dramatic call, high school referees are notorious for being quick with the intentional call and more than willing to make a big call at the end of the game. 2) Trust your defense.
One stop to win the game - that is what you build a defense to do. If you need to resort to trickery to win in this situation, what does that say about your defense? There is not a team in America who, in this situation, would chose to foul instead of defend.
3) You can only go to overtime in this situation - not lose the game.
Here is the scenario that scares most coaches out of trying this strategy: the first foul shot is made, the second is missed, the rebound is tipped out to a three point shooter who buries the shot to win the game.
It is not a likely scenario, but why open yourself up to that possibility. The only way a four-point possession can occur if the team defends is with a foul on the shooter, something that should never, ever happen to a defense.
Why Foul Instead of Defend
1) It takes multiple things to happen to tie instead of one lucky shot.
Even if a team defends well, there is always the chance of a banked three pointer or answered prayer to send things to overtime. By fouling, at least four things must go right for a tie. The first foul shot must be made (#1), the second must be missed properly - it must hit the rim (#2), the rebound must be secured (#3) and the put-back must go in (#4).
One thing vs. four things - those are easy odds.
2) The foul can work without actually working.
Bruce Pearl uses this strategy at the end of games and got a great break because of it during the Vols' victory over Mississippi State. The Bulldogs were looking for a tying three-pointer down 74-71 and Tennessee was looking to hack the dribbler. Everything went perfectly, except that the referee decided not to call the foul. The Vols were instead able to disrupt the dribbler and force an even worse shot because they were trying to foul instead of defend.
3) Free throw blockouts are the best odds a team can get in basketball.
It is 4 on 3 with one of the three not allowed to rebound until the ball hits the rim. That means it is really 4 on 2 in the paint to avoid giving up the offensive putback. If you cannot win in that situation, you do not deserve to win.
What is the best strategy in this situation?
After hours of breaking down tape, deep meditation and prayers to ever known deity, I am convinced that defending is the best idea in this situation.
For me, it all comes down to this - my job is to put my team in the best position to win the game and not lose it. The only way my team can lose in this situation is to foul the dribbler and potentially give up a four-point possession.
The only time I might change my mind in this scenario would be if my team was depleted for the overtime session. Perhaps I have a few guys disqualified for fouls and expect to lose. I might take my chances on losing in regulation to give myself the best chance of winning in regulation.
The Great B-Ball Debate (Part 2) - Man vs. Zone