It’s one of the best sporting events of the year, filled with great teams, great players, great plays, lots of drama, and moments that will go down in history.
Perhaps none more than the final seconds of last year’s championship game featuring Villanova vs. North Carolina.
There are also moments that leave people scratching their heads, wondering what a coach or player was thinking.
Such was the case with a first round game this past Thursday that featured Northwestern (making its first ever NCAA appearance) vs. Vanderbilt.
With 18 seconds left in the game, Vanderbilt scores a basket to go up by one, 66-65. Northwestern in-bounds the ball, and four seconds later one of the Vanderbilt players intentionally fouls a , an player, giving him two free throws.
The Northwestern player who was fouled was an 86% free throw shooter, and he made both shots, putting his team ahead by one.
Vanderbilt had one last chance to win the game, but missed a three-pointer, sending Northwestern into the second round.
The foul by the Vanderbilt player was roundly criticized, and there were headlines after the game such as:
Northwestern prevails over Vanderbilt with two gift free throws
Northwestern wins first-ever NCAA tournament game off Vanderbilt’s gaffe
Northwestern edges Vanderbilt for first NCAA win after inexplicable error in final seconds
Vanderbilt player commits huge late mistake in Northwestern win
Even the player who committed the foul said after the game, “We lost on ‘my dumb mistake’”
Even the announcers on TV were incredulous, as you will see int he video below.
I did not see the game, but read about it the next day.
But my reaction was the complete opposite of everyone else’s; I thought it was a good move.
If I were Northwestern, I would have taken the ball down the court, and waited until there were just a couple of seconds left int he game, and then taken a shot. If it goes in, you leave Vanderbilt with no chance to reclaim the lead.
By fouling the Northwestern player with about 14 seconds left, Vanderbilt guaranteed itself that it would get the ball back. Assuming the Northwestern player makes both free throws, you at lest then have the opportunity to take the last shot and win the game.
I guess it comes down to the fact that I would rather have the ball in my hands to determine the outcome of a game, rather than in the hands of the other team.
Obviously, it seemed like no one agreed with me, and I thought that’s why I’m not paid seven figures to coach college basketball.
In Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, sports reporter Andrew Beaton had a full analysis of the situation.
He notes, “… (the Vanderbilt player) committed what is being hailed as a blunder for the ages. It was instantly ridiculed as a bone-headed, game-costing move that will live forever in March Madness infamy. But maybe that analysis—based on decades of conventional basketball wisdom—is completely wrong.”
As soon as I saw that, I had to read more.
Beaton shares various hypothetical scenarios for how the game could have ended, using statistics to make his points. According to his analysis, Vanderbilt had a 55% chance at winning if they commit the foul, which was higher than the 51% if they didn’t.
He also shared the advanced calculations at KenPom.com which showed that the options were very close: They give a Vanderbilt a 57.7% chance at winning after taking the one-point lead, while their numbers indicate a 52% chance for Vanderbilt winning even after fouling.
It seems clear, when looking at both of these analyses (Beaton’s and KenPom’s), that committing the foul was by no means a game-losing bone-headed play. At worst, the foul marginally hurt the Commodores’ chance at winning.
It certainly doesn’t seem like it should be considered one of the worst decisions ever by a college basketball player. (and that is why I purposely never mention his name – no need for it to go down in infamy).
Beaton also notes that while there likely isn’t a single NBA or college coach that would have had one of his players commit such a foul, international basketball teams are willing to try these things far more frequently. They think about it a different way: Would you rather have your offense, or the other team’s offense, decide the game – wish is exactly what I thought.
I’ve seen some football games where the defense will let the offense score quickly so that they can give their own offense get one last chance to score and win the game, and no one seems to criticize such a decision.
Anyway, it’s always nice when you find someone to agree with your viewpoint, especially when it seems like there aren’t too many in this situation. (If you are able to read the comments to the WSJ article, the vast majority vehemently oppose Beaton’s analysis.)
It’s good old confirmation bias at work. So thank you Andrew Beaton for your analysis.
Finally, I also can’t write such a blog without mentioning Villanova’s tough loss to Wisconsin. Despite the loss, the team still has a lot to be proud of, and as usual, Coach Jay Wright and his players were the epitome of class in defeat.
And while I have no team to really root for at this point, I must admit I was really hoping Arkansas was going to Beat North Carolina today.
After all, misery loves company.