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Revisiting Mark Fox's decision not to foul with South Carolina down 3...

South Carolina was inbounding the ball, down 3, with 12 seconds left, inside of half-court.

Mark Fox chose not to have his team foul.  Fox's explanation after the game:

"I didn’t ask them if they wanted to foul," Fox made clear after the game. "I asked them if they trusted their defense. I thought it was important for them to be vocal about that. We were not going to foul. I needed our team to commit to one another."

That sounds nice, but as we saw against Florida earlier in the year, not fouling can result in painful losses as well.

So which is the correct strategy?

It's a topic that has been heavily debated amongst college basketball writers, statisticians, and fans.   A group of Harvard students last year concluded that intentionally fouling changes little.  On the other hand, this article, written by David Annis of SportsQuant.com and published in 2006 by the Journal of Quantitative Analysis in Sports, found that intentionally fouling is clearly the optimal strategy in most cases.  Ken Pomeroy has also concluded that intentionally fouling, when up 3 with less than 10 seconds, is "in most cases" the optimal strategy. 

I have not seen any work showing that intentionally fouling in such situations clearly lowers a teams chances of winning.  The research I've seen all ranges from intentionally fouling clearly being the optimal strategy in most cases to it not making a significant difference either way.

Looking specifically at Georgia and South Carolina, the arguments for Georgia intentionally fouling appear to be even stronger than with the averages.  The average FT% in D1 this year is 68.9%. (It was 68.9% the last 2 seasons as well.) Of the 5 players South Carolina had on the floor to end the game, only Malik Cooke (70.7%) has a career FT% greater than the D1 average.  But Cooke is not a 3-point shooter and thus was unlikely to touch the ball off the inbounds pass.  Of the 4 likeliest 3-point shooters for South Carolina, all have below average career FT%: Brian Richardson (68.2%), Ramon Galloway (68.2%), Sam Muldrow (67.9%), and, SC's most prolific 3-point shooter, and the player who ended up taking the shot, Bruce Ellington (63.6%).

On the other hand, Georgia's career FT percentages on the court: Ware (77.8%), Thompkins (73.0%), Robinson (73.0%), and Leslie (69.6%) are all above average FT shooters, with only Price (67.0%) being slightly below average.

Conclusion: Georgia got away with the win... despite Fox having made the wrong call.  Fox can talk about the team trusting its defense and whatever... but that required making a decision that lowered the team's chances of winning. One might argue that there are times when a coach should lower his team's chances of winning in order to make a motivational point for later in the season (hey, we've all seen Hoosiers), but I'm pretty sure the final seconds of a critical game late in the season is not one of those times.

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