Up Three, Under Seven: The most hotly debated endgame scenario
You're up by three with seven seconds left, without the ball -- what do you do?
One Division III coach has based his philosophy on endgame probabilities
Butler's Brad Stevens was faced with the up-three dilemma at the Final Four
INDIANAPOLIS, April 4, 2010 -- Ronald Nored was at the line, and the odds were not in his favor. His season free-throw percentage, 61.2, was the worst of anyone's on the floor. The score was Butler 50, Michigan State 49. The statistical likelihood of him making both free throws and putting his Bulldogs in a safer position, up three with 6.1 seconds left, was 37.5 percent. But there were other factors: the pressure of it being the biggest game of his life, in the Final Four; the bad shooting backdrop at Lucas Oil Stadium, which was built for football; the fact that he was just 3-of-12 from the stripe in the NCAA tournament. The odds might have actually been worse.
Nored proceeded to defy them. He breathed, exhaled demonstratively, dribbled thrice, flexed his knees, shot the free throw, and sank it -- and then repeated, giving Butler a 52-49 lead. It was a reminder that in an endgame drama, odds are just odds, not a guarantee of an outcome.
"Now," CBS' Clark Kellogg began to say after the second make, "you think about fouling here if you're Butler."
Bulldogs head coach Brad Stevens had already thought about it and given out strategic orders in the huddle that preceded Nored's trip to the foul line. Butler knew what it wanted to do.
In the sea of end zone seats behind Michigan State's basket was someone more adamant than Kellogg about what Butler should do. Bill Fenlon, the head coach of Division III DePauw, was sitting what felt like a mile away from the court -- probably farther away than was appropriate for someone who counted Stevens as a former player and Bulldogs assistant Micah Shrewsberry as a former assistant. But Fenlon had deliberately refrained from groveling for tickets that week. He knew his former acolytes' lives were already at an unprecedented level of craziness, so he took his National Association of Basketball Coaches-issued tickets and their bad vantage point. His view had no effect on his degree of certainty.
This is the perfect situation, he thought. This was his pet situation. He'd written a paper about it. He'd given the paper to Stevens years ago. In Fenlon's circle of coaching friends he was the Evangelist of Fouling Up-Three Under Seven Seconds. He hoped Stevens was on the same wavelength, thinking the same thing: You HAVE to foul here.
Fenlon once commissioned the drawing of mathematical decision trees on the subject, and believes in the following odds:
A 19 percent chance of getting sent to overtime if you hunker down and play no-fouls defense.
A 4.9 percent chance of getting sent to overtime if you foul correctly.
A 0.67 percent chance of going to overtime by accidentally fouling a three-point shooter.
A 0.13 percent chance of losing in regulation by accidentally fouling the shooter.
A 0.16 percent chance of losing in regulation off a made first free throw, missed second, offensive rebound and a three.
Fenlon always fouls, because he likes the 1-in-20 odds versus the 1-in-5s.
When Michigan State inbounded the ball with a baseball pass to Raymar Morgan near half court, Butler's intentions became clear. A double-team of Avery Jukes and Willie Veasley converged on Morgan, and they appeared ready to hack. A whistle seemed imminent -- so why then, at this moment, was Fenlon overcome with dread?
Because it's one thing to make conclusions on paper about the favorable odds of fouling, and another thing to put those conclusions to use (for six wins and zero losses) over the past eight seasons of DePauw games. But it's another thing altogether to see those odds tested by one of your former players on a Final Four stage.
Fourteen and a half million were watching this trial on TV, and doubt had entered the equation. Please, Fenlon thought, don't let this be the one time in 20.
Standing in front of the Butler bench, Stevens was having a more acute experience with doubt. He was thinking of his old coach. And wishing he could say to him, "You'd better be right about this."
* * * * * * * *
How long does it take, and how much pain is required, for a coach to consider changing his mind? For Fenlon, what transpired in the DePauw-Trinity game on the night of Feb. 12, 1999, was the breaking point, but his conversion was a seven-year process of overcoming stubbornness and denial.
In 1992, in his second game as head coach at DePauw, the Tigers turned the ball over with 10 seconds left and a three-point lead over Illinois Wesleyan. He had them hunker down and play defense ... and Wesleyan's point guard drilled a 28-foot 3-pointer to tie the score. DePauw lost in overtime. Fenlon excused the defeat as "tough luck."
In 1994, at home against Illinois Wesleyan, DePauw was again up three in the final 10 seconds. Again, Fenlon opted to hunker. The Tigers contested a difficult shot by Wesleyan's future D-III All-American, Bryan Crabtree. It rolled around the rim twice, hit the backboard, and fell through the net. DePauw lost in double overtime. Fenlon excused it by saying, "Great players sometimes make great plays."