Last week, the guys over at Harvard Sports Analysis Collective -- a must-bookmark if yo haven't already -- put together an interesting study that looked at fouling when a team is up three late in the game. We had our disagreements with that study, but the HSAC has come out with two more that, in our not-so-humble opinions are spot-on and quite worthy of a read.
Both studies took a look at the use of timeouts during end-of-game situations -- the first strictly looked at the likelihood of being fouled on a final possession if a timeout was called, and the second looked at how scoring was affected by a timeout when the game in tied on the final possession -- and both studies overwhelmingly say that it is in the best interest of the team with possession not to call a timeout.
Teams were much more likely to draw a foul if they did not call a timeout before that possession. Teams drew fouls on 13 percent of end-of-game possessions when they did not call a timeout. Teams that called a timeout only drew fouls on 8 percent of their possessions. This difference was strongly statistically significant (p=0.001). (Edit: as a commenter points out, I should mention that I did not include plays were the deficit was 3 points so as to avoid being biased by intentional fouls). via
In my 2009-2010 dataset, 452 teams fit the above criteria. 235 of those teams called timeout, 217 did not. Of the teams that called timeout, only 35.7 percent scored on the subsequent possession. Teams that did not call timeout scored 53.0 percent of the time. A simple two sample t-test with unequal variances shows that this difference is strongly statistically significant (p=0.0002). ... Teams that called timeout scored an average of 0.773 points per possession whereas teams that did not call timeout scored an average of 1.06 PPP. Another hypothesis test showed that this difference, too, was statistically significant (p=0.022). viaNow, I happen to agree wholeheartedly with these results.
Things are chaotic in the final seconds of a close basketball game, especially games with something significant on the line -- a place in the conference standings, advancing in a tournament, or even simply earning a good, non-conference win -- and a loud and rowdy crowd in attendance. By pushing the ball up the floor, the goal is to catch the defense off-balance. Maybe you get the ball in the hands of a scorer who has a chance to attack a defender that is back-pedaling. Maybe a guard gets caught in a mismatch with a post player. Maybe the defense fails to locate their man, leaving a shooter with an open look.
The textbook example came in the second round of last year's tournament when Michigan State beat Maryland. Take a look at how this play develops:
After Greivis Vasquez scores to put Maryland ahead, Draymond Green brings the ball up the floor, and Adrian Bowie leaves his man (Korie Lucious) to try and hound Green on his way up the court. This creates a situation where no one matches up with Lucious. Green hits him on the wing where Lucious had a very good look at a three, but instead throws a pump fake at Landon Milbourne who is running at him, takes one dribble to his left, and gets even better look at a rhythm jumper from the top of the key.
On a final possession situation like that, including situations where there is more time left on the clock than 6.5 seconds, it is difficult to design a play that is going to get a good look for your team. In general, even if a time out is called, a coach is going to have to rely on his team to make a basketball play. He is going to need someone to step up, beat his man, and draw a foul; or knock down a jump shot; or draw a defender and find the open player. Whatever the case may be, a final play like the one above is more about the talent of the players involved and the preparation the coach gave them throughout the season than it is about specific coaching on that specific possession.
By not calling the timeout, Tom Izzo put the pressure on the Maryland defense. They were flustered and their defense broke down. It allowed Lucious to get a good look at a three.
If you are a coach, you are in need of a basket to win/tie a game on a final possession, and you need to rely on your kids to make one play to get that bucket, wouldn't you rather them go against a defense that isn't set than a defense that is?
Regardless, these two studies are certainly worth the click. We will be bringing you more as they post more.