Revisiting Kansas St.-Xavier through a fascinating new prism (cont.)
Over the course of the next 12 possessions, Xavier brought the Win Probability back down to even (at 50 percent), tying the game at 67-67 with under a minute to play and setting up a stunning sequence of events.Earlier this summer, when I talked to Kansas State coach Frank Martin about the game, he said he'd yet to review the tape in its entirety. "But," he added, "I've replayed the end of it in my head hundreds of times."
Martin has to enjoy the first part, which went right: The Wildcats got the ball back with 47 seconds left, and instead of gunning for a two-for-one opportunity on the 35-second shot clock, they patiently ran a pick-and-roll at the top of the key with their two best shooters, guards Jacob Pullen and Denis Clemente. Pullen kept his dribble into an iso situation on the left wing, and his three (complete with a "BURIES IT!" exclamation from Johnson) with 23.6 seconds left was a true dagger. It put K-State up 70-67, and elevated its Win Probability from 57 percent to 79.
The ensuing possession is palatable for Martin, too: He frantically ordered his team not to foul, because there was too much time left on the clock. Although Xavier hit a quick two-pointer (on a Jason Love putback with 12.1 seconds left) to cut it to 70-69, it only reduced the Wildcats' Win Probability from 79 percent to 77.5. (It's interesting how little affect that late two had on the game odds; given how hot Jordan Crawford and Terrell Holloway were from long-range in the second half, it seems they would have been better off taking a three.)
Xavier was forced to foul, Pullen hit both free throws to make it 72-69 with 9.7 seconds left. K-State's Win Probability was 85 percent. And this is where disaster struck for the Wildcats, after Martin gave instructions to foul. "Every time, everywhere I've been, we've always fouled in that situation," he said. "It's just what I believe in."
Clemente dutifully tried to foul Holloway shortly after he dribbled past halfcourt. But ... Clemente didn't foul hard enough to guarantee a whistle, and the refs remained silent. That caused Wildcats guard Chris Merriewether -- heretofore considered a heady defensive sub -- to reach in a second later, allowing Holloway to sell the act of shooting a three, and draw an improbable three-shot foul. During the slow-motion replays, CBS color analyst Len Elmore said, "Now you see why coaches are loath to foul in that situation."
Holloway, an 84.6 percent free-throw shooter, nailed all three attempts, tying the game and reducing K-State's Win Probability from 85 percent to 56. The Wildcats, who watched Pullen's buzzer-beater go off the rim, were temporarily shell-shocked heading into overtime, but Martin is still adamant that he made the best tactical decision. "If I'm in that [situation] next time," he said, "I'm fouling again."
And you know what? He's right. The odds are overwhelmingly on his side.
Let's say that a smart team up three in that situation -- and Martin said his team had rehearsed this scores of times -- commits the shooting-foul blunder on 1 in 8 occasions. Even if that happens, a jittery 18-22-year-old will still be forced to hit three consecutive free throws to tie the game. The odds of even an 85 percent free-throw shooter making three in a row are 61 percent. So we're talking about 1/8 odds of putting the guy on the line, and then only 6/10 odds, at best, that he ties the game -- which means there's only a 7.5 percent chance of that doomsday scenario. Would you rather take that risk, or let a 35-40 percent three-point shooter attempt a long-range shot while you're being careful not to foul?
Here's the statistical picture of what happens when a team up three correctly executes a non-shooting foul in the waning seconds of a bonus situation:
A 70-85 percent free-throw shooter needs to make his first attempt in a high-pressure situation. Then the odds turn against him. To create a long rebound on shot two, he needs to miss artfully -- a skill that's rarely practiced because it's rarely required in games. How often can a player throw up that perfect brick? One in five times? One in 10?
His teammates then need to get an offensive rebound, and this is when they're at an even bigger disadvantage. Teams, on average, only grabbed 32.7 percent of available offensive boards in 2009-10 -- under normal circumstances. But Martin makes the point that free-throw rebounding is an abnormal situation: "Ever since the NCAA changed the free-throw lane rules, where [the defensive team] gets four guys, and [the shooting team] gets three, one of whom is the shooter," he says, "the chances of getting an offensive board went way down."
Let's generously assign the odds of getting that offensive board at 30 percent. After that, the team would still need to make a two (a 47 percent shot, on average) to tie, or a three (a 34 percent shot) to win.
The odds of that tie sequence playing out are around 2 percent, and odds of a different tie sequence (with an unintentionally missed first free throw, an offensive rebound, and a three) are also around 2 percent. That's a rough total of 4 percent, which, combined with the odds of the aforementioned K-State three-shot-foul doomsday scenario (7.5 percent), only totals 11.5 percent.
So, in summation: If you chose to foul in this situation -- and you do it the right way or the wrong way -- my estimate is that there's only an 11.5 percent chance you'll allow a tie, and a 1.5 percent chance you'll allow a win. On the other hand, if you let a decent-shooting opposing player take a three, you're at least three times more likely to be forced into overtime. The foul is the smart play.
The Butler-Michigan State Win Probability chart from the Final Four is an example of how the up-three foul can seal a victory: The Bulldogs held a 52-49 lead in the final 10 seconds, with a Win Probability of 82 percent. Their late foul, after which Michigan State succeeded in making the first free-throw, and missing the second, actually increased Butler's Win Probability, and Gordon Hayward sealed the game by pulling down the final rebound.
The end of the first overtime of K-State-Xavier was as thrilling as the end of regulation -- mostly because the Wildcats had another three-point lead (at 87-84) and didn't foul. This wasn't an egregious mistake, though: Xavier's final possession began with 18.1 seconds left, which was too early to commit a foul, and the Musketeers were in shooting range by the time a foul would've been appropriate. That last possession didn't come off of a stoppage, either, and Martin didn't want to risk yelling in fouling instructions from the opposite bench, for fear of them being processed too late. Crawford, a 39.1 percent three-point shooter, was allowed to launch an NBA-length trey. It went through the net, sent Gus Johnson into an enhanced state of mania, and sent the game to another overtime.
All but the last three possessions of the second overtime were considered high-leverage, but Xavier's gunners failed to make anther three. Thus there were no more heroics and no more dilemmas. With five seconds left, Clemente iced the game with two free throws that sent K-State's Win Probability into the 90th percentile. The score was 101-96, the same way it would end, going into the annals as the 2010 NCAA tournament's high-leverage masterpiece. "There were two teams that day," Martin said, "that just refused to end their seasons." Crawford logged on to his Twitter that night and told Xavier fans to be proud. "Stand up!!" he wrote, before describing the Musketeers' exit in a way no Win Probability graph could. We "went out," he said, "like Gs."
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