Hero Ball From the Coach's Box (or: Is it REally Manly to Help the Leading Team Run the Clock Down?)
By Pete Tothero
Solve the following NCAA basketball problem. Please show your work.
You are the coach of an NCAA men’s basketball team playing in the championship tournament. With 48 seconds left in the game, your team trails by one point, and has just missed a shot. Your opponent rebounds the ball and brings it upcourt. Offenses in college basketball have 35 seconds to shoot. Using the space below, please show multiple possible time and scoring scenarios in order to decide which of the listed actions you should take in order to have CBS color commentator Clark Kellogg enthusiastically respond to your decision by shouting to viewers that this is the right strategy—this is exactly what your team should do!
a) I should instruct my players to foul immediately.
b) I should instruct my players to shift to a half-court trapping defense to try and force a turnover. Because we’ve never practiced that defense, though, on account of I never taught it to my team because I was too busy doing the weekly radio show with those college kids majoring in communications who worship me like a god, we should just foul immediately.
c) I should whip out my cell phone and text those high school kids I’m recruiting to make sure that they see we’re on national television and how cool my hair looks with this Pitino dye job and extra-hold product in it. If I can get them to commit to my university, we’ll maybe be ahead in this game instead of down by one…next year.
d) I should do nothing. As the opponent goes into their offense and moves the ball around the perimeter while the game clock ticks down, I should do nothing.
Would you believe that despite all of the work you showed in the blank space—and I love the fact that you did that work there, you’re definitely going to get credit for showing your work, so go ahead and clean off your screen—the current answer in college basketball is d) Do nothing?
This, at least, is what happened in last weekend’s Temple vs. Indiana game. Now here’s the kicker: in this tight, one-point game, after Clark giddily shouted that Temple was using the right strategy, how did the game end?
Indiana won by 6.
College basketball is rife with situations in which players shift into “hero ball” mode, and try, to the detriment of the team, to take over a game via some kind of dramatic, individual play. Guards shoot unnecessary threes from 27 feet to try and tie a game or take the lead, big men goaltend shots that weren’t even going to go in, and forwards on the break signal for alley oops that they can’t handle and then clang off the rim.
Why, though, do we never accuse coaches of playing hero ball? With his team behind in a NCAA tournament game and the clock winding down, Temple coach Fran Dunphy decided that his team was…just going to be super, super tough, and it didn’t matter that even if they got a defensive stop, by the time they gathered the rebound there would be only ten seconds left in the game—in which they would still be behind. Nope. Temple was tough. They were just going to come through.
In Dunphy’s defense, this way of playing that situation isn’t unusual. It also doesn’t make a lick of sense from the standpoint of maximizing your chances of winning a basketball game. First, and most obviously, when you are behind in a basketball game, you don’t want the game to end, because if the game ends when you are behind, the referees declare you to have lost. I know that seems unfair—just one of many outrageous things referees do—but it’s actually a rule, and a good one, I think: the team with more points at the end of the game shall be declared the winner. So when you’re behind and the clock is winding down, you should try to get the ball back.
Now that was, in some ways, Dunphy’s intention. He decided to believe his team would stop top-seed Indiana from scoring, and told his team to just…stop them! He decided to believe that, in the waning moments of the game, his team would do two difficult things—stop Indiana, then score—back to back, and the game would then quicklyendandtheywouldallbeheroes!
But that was only one of many possible outcomes, and the least likely. Here are others, some of which will undoubtedly match your work above. I’ll assume that in all scenarios Indiana intends to run most of the 35-second shot clock down before shooting:
1. Indiana hits a regular (two point) basket and Temple gets the ball back down by 3 with only a small amount of time left. Not good.
2. Temple, trying to play desperately tough defense as the shot clock winds down and they know Indiana is moving toward taking a shot, unintentionally fouls Indiana, and Indiana makes two free throws with 14ish seconds left in the game. Not good.
3. Indiana shoots and misses, but gets the offensive rebound. Not good.
4. Indiana hits a three-pointer. Temple would be down four with little time to do anything about it. Very bad.
So by deciding not to foul, Dunphy was deliberately pursuing a strategy in which four out of five scenarios are not good, and in which one of them still includes committing an (unintentional) foul. (I know one could parse the variable statistical likelihoods of each of those scenarios, and discuss at length the various players’ tendencies and so forth, but my experience in sports is that all of that stuff, though it helps fill hours of talk radio, pretty much evens out. Indiana is going to run the clock down and then try to score. There are only a handful of things that can happen at that point.)
And guess what happened? A bad thing! Here’s why: because a bad thing was the most likely thing to happen! In this case, it was the very bad thing: Indiana hit a three-pointer. Game over. Or not quite. Through judicious use of a wild shot and then intentionally fouling, Temple managed to lose by six instead of just four. Well-played.
If Temple had fouled immediately—with, say 45 seconds left—Indiana would have shot free throws. After shooting the free throws, Temple would have had two very good things:
1. The ball.
2. Knowledge of exactly how much they were down, and therefore what they needed to do.
Indiana would have been shooting free throws under pressure, so the likelihood that a player would miss one or both free throws is pretty good. But even if Indiana made both free throws, Temple would have the ball with 45 seconds left—time enough to make all sorts of strategic choices on offense. If they wanted—and I think that when you are behind in a game, this a thing you should want—they could have extended the game by a few possessions, in the hopes that they might get themselves into a scenario in which they were not behind with the clock running down.
Admittedly, fouling Indiana may not have been as tough guy-ish as refusing to do anything, and thus may not have earned laudatory shout-outs from Clark Kellogg. Declare (via your strategy) that this thing will be settled now, and the crowd will definitely come to its feet as the adrenaline begins to flow. Heroic? Perhaps. But trying to be ahead when the game is over might be more important than commentator admiration and coursing adrenaline.
We will undoubtedly see—because the NCAA tournament is rife with it, and everyone seems to agree it’s “right,” despite logic—more coach-imposed, team-level hero ball in the tournament this weekend. Which means that as a team deliberately allows the clock to tick down while the crowd stands, and a color commentator caught up in the emotion—and no longer thinking—shouts that this is the right strategy, my neighbors will probably once again have to hear me shout “No, it isn’t! It never has been!”
Pete Tothero wrote occasional analysis of the NFL during the fall and was sometimes scarily accurate despite using entirely unprofessional criteria, after which he would disappear for weeks at a time. He has never actually coached basketball.