Chalk Talk: To foul? Or not to foul? That is the question


Up three points with seconds left…do you foul? (Photo by Nick Falzerano)

No matter what level you watch, a commonly debated strategy in today’s
basketball game has become defending a three-point lead with just a few ticks left
on the clock.
Some say play it out. Some say foul. Whatever the case, all basketball
junkies are saying something.

No matter what level you watch, a commonly debated strategy in today’s basketball game has become defending a three-point lead with just a few ticks left on the clock. Foul trouble, where the ball is being inbounded, who has had the hot hand, and how well you rebound are all factors that run through a coach’s mind when the scoreboard reads this scenario. Often times, the slightest change in variables can change the entire theory.

Some say play it out. Some say foul. Whatever the case, all basketball junkies are saying something.

“I have thought about it a million times over the past few weeks,” said Chillicothe Huntington head coach Rick Uhrig who watched Piketon’s Cody Smith hit a 26-footer to send a game into overtime – a game Huntington lost. “When I looked at all the factors – ball being inbounded at the other foul line with just four seconds remaining, we had a 6-5 kid with long arms guarding the in-bounder, and all the foul trouble we were in at the time – I decided to play it straight up. Unfortunately, they were able to get the ball inbounded to a great scorer, and he took one dribble away from the basket and hit an incredible shot. He probably doesn’t make that shot too many times out of ten, but in that case he just has to make it once and he did.

“The thought of fouling was considered,” continued Uhrig who led Huntington to the Scioto Valley Conference championship a year ago as well as the Division III district tournament in Athens. “The drawbacks just didn’t seem to make that the right choice. With three of our starters fouled out, including one of our best rebounders, we felt the experience and personnel on the floor called for us to play it straight up.”

This is a situation that is becoming more and more scrutinized by fans and coaches. I think often times we look at the strategy rather than giving a great player credit for making a great shot. 

The major influence in deciding is the answer to the question, “Have you practiced it?”

It can sometimes be difficult in one timeout to get the message across to players. If not executed properly, you can foul too early leaving enough time for more possessions. You can foul late – possibly in the act of shooting. You can be too aggressive and risk an intentional foul. Anytime you are purposely fouling in the game of basketball you are giving an official a chance to make a judgment. Sure, you wouldn’t think an official would call an intentional in this situation, but how many times have you seen teams purposely fouling to stop the clock, and an official’s opinion gives their opponents two shots and the ball.

I once had a coach tell me that when you put what you do (as a coach) in the hands of 15, 16, and 17-year-old kids you never know what is going to happen. I know as a former coach, I often discussed something in the huddle only to see it look a little different when performed seconds later on the court.

The strategy of fouling in this situation is becoming more and more popular.

It is believed that you are making your opponent do several things to beat you. The player must first make a free throw. Then miss a free throw in which his team must rebound and score to tie. The one concern here is the chance of losing the game on a three-point play of some sort. This is why the time remaining and your team’s ability to rebound the basketball become so crucial in the decision-making process.

The rules on free throws have changed so much over the past five years, and offensive rebounds are becoming more and more common in these situations. I will say the rule moving the bottom guy up a spot this year has helped the defense, but it is still much more difficult than it was several years ago when the defense could get all five guys in the lane.

This certainly is a tough choice for a coach.

Like all choices, if the selection ends in a victory then the coach is brilliant, and if it ends in a heartbreaking, overtime loss then the coach doesn’t have a clue. It is funny how people are always so sure after the fact. After the player has made the three-point shot to tie the game, you always have the fans saying, “They should have fouled. Why would you let them take a shot to tie it when you could have fouled?”

On the other hand, that same decision results in a three-pointer being missed and you would have fans saying, “Great choice! Best thing to do there is just play straight up.”

This thought was echoed by longtime, legendary Southeastern coach and now Jackson head coach Larry Jordan.

“As a coach, if you do something right, then people think you know something, but if it goes wrong then most people feel you should be doing something else,” Jordan said. “I have never fouled in this situation. That doesn’t mean I never will, but to this point in my career, I have never used the strategy of fouling in that situation.

“I think there are a lot of factors that go into that decision,” Jordan continued. “You have to know all the foul situations, and you have to think about how well your team rebounds the basketball. It is a great topic for discussion, and I don’t know if there is a definite right answer.”

I think so many decisions that a coach makes in the heat of the battle are just simply gut decisions. They say you always should trust your gut feeling and my feeling in this situation is usually not to foul; however, the one thing that makes me feel the other way is the feeling I would have if I were down three. If I am in a huddle down by three with less than 10 seconds to go, I do not want my opponent to foul. I as a coach want the chance to take my dry-erase marker and board and draw up something for my best player to take a shot. 

The more I breakdown this situation the more I go back-and-forth, which returns me to my original thought of what you have or have not practiced. I think it is tough to decide that you are going to do one thing every time. I think you have to practice multiple situations, and then when faced with this development in a game, you must weigh all the factors and do what you think is best for your team.

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