Rob Demovsky column: Study shows odds favor fouling when leading late by 3

7:11 AM, Feb. 12, 2013  |  Comments
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Bill Fenlon was at a high school basketball game last spring on a recruiting trip and found himself standing next to one of the most prominent college coaches in the country.

Fenlon, the coach at DePauw University, a Division III school in Greencastle, Ind., watched as the final seconds ticked down on a scenario he has studied over and over. One team was up three points coming out of a timeout with 10 seconds to play. He turned to the coach and asked: "Do you foul here?"

The coach emphatically said: "We never foul."

So as Fenlon and the coach are chatting, the team with the lead doesn't foul. The other team makes a 3-pointer to tie and goes on to win in overtime.

And then the coach says to Fenlon: "You're that guy, aren't you?"

What guy is that, you ask?

He's the guy that more coaches should listen to when it comes to that end-of-the-game scenario. About 10 years ago, after Fenlon had lost an overtime game for the third time in a span of a couple of seasons after an opponent hit a game-tying 3 in the final seconds of regulation, he sat down with a mathematician to study this further and concluded that the only thing to do in that situation is foul. He laid out the reasons, along with all the mathematical probabilities in a 10-page essay that, while never formally published, has been passed around from coach to coach and can be found on the Internet.

"It's really taken on this life of its own," Fenlon said recently. "I initially wrote it with the idea that I might publish it in a coach's journal or something like that. But really it was an exercise for me to exorcise the demons that I had from not fouling in that situation."

Local college basketball observers saw that come into play a couple of times last week. On Thursday, the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay men's basketball team elected not to foul with a three-point lead late in the first overtime of a double-overtime loss to Wright State.

The Phoenix went up by three after a free throw by Keifer Sykes with 20.8 seconds left. Though that's far too early to foul under Fenlon's guide - he prefers to foul with 7 seconds or less remaining, Phoenix coach Brian Wardle said he would do it under 6 seconds - but 10 seconds or less still seems like a reasonable time frame. UWGB had three chances to foul in the final 10 seconds: first with the ball in the right corner at the 10-second mark, then with the ball on the right wing with 9 seconds left and again with 4.8 seconds left after Wright State rebounded its first missed 3.

"That's the hardest scenario, when you're in that 12- to 15-second range," Fenlon said. "It's too early, and then the team has to figure it out while the clock is going down. I think if you're coming out of a timeout, and there's 8 seconds left, that's the easiest and best scenario. You offensive rebound, now you're in a scramble. Unless you've got someone in position to do it and smart enough to do it, and you've talked about doing it already, and you've practiced it."

On the same night, the UWGB women's team hit a free throw to go ahead by three points with 18 seconds left at Loyola. Phoenix coach Kevin Borseth elected to, as Fenlon calls it, "hunker down" and play defense. It worked this time because Loyola missed a game-tying 3-pointer but, according to Fenlon's research, Borseth's team defied the odds.

On Saturday, Michigan hit a 3-pointer to take a three-point lead over Wisconsin with 2.4 seconds left. Had Michigan fouled as soon as the Badgers in-bounded the ball, Ben Brust never would have had the chance to make the game-tying 3-pointer from just short of halfcourt that allowed Wisconsin to go on to win in overtime.

Back in the Horizon League on Sunday, Illinois-Chicago led by three with 5.9 seconds left in the first overtime at Youngstown State. After a timeout, the Flames elected not to foul, and Youngstown State hit a 3 to force a second overtime. UIC managed to win in triple overtime but put itself unnecessarily at risk by not fouling.

In a nutshell, Fenlon determined if a team is up three and doesn't foul, the game will go to overtime one in five times. If it does foul, he determined there is less than a one in 20 chance of being tied when the team makes the first free throw and tries to intentionally miss the second free throw in order to rebound and score. Fenlon didn't calculate the odds of being tied or losing when the trailing team doesn't intentionally miss the second free throw, essentially forcing the team with the lead to either make free throws or run the clock out.

"Just because you want to make them both, doesn't mean you're going to make them both," Fenlon said. "So that means that if I come down and even if I don't make the free throws, and I'm still ahead, and you've got to go the length of the court and throw something in. The odds haven't changed, except you have less time to do it."

Fenlon urged that the scenario must be practiced to avoid the possible dangers such as fouling a 3-point shooter either in the act or intentionally. But, with the help of his mathematician, he estimated that there's a one in 750 chance that a player will make a 3-pointer while getting fouled and make the free throw. In his essay, Fenlon covers every possible scenario and assigns percentages to the possibility of each one happening.

In each scenario, the odds favor one thing: Fouling.

"You hear these guys on TV talking about it all the time, and I know they haven't thought about it as much as I have," Fenlon said. "The only argument against it is some testosterone-driven thing that we're just going to guard you when the reality is it's a numbers-driven thing. Everybody's afraid it's going to backfire on them, but you can probably off the top of your head right now name me a half-dozen games in the last month where people have been tied on a shot at the end of the game that's taken the game into overtime. I bet you can't come up with one where fouling backfired and somebody got beat."

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