Up Three, Time Winding Down: Do You Foul? Harvard Smartypants Say It Doesn't Matter, We Say Otherwise

Everyone's buzzing about an analysis of last season's college hoops games, that claims to demonstrate that there's no measurable difference between fouling to force two shots, or letting them shoot the three. Here at Wednesday Afternoon Statistician, we beg to differ.

You see it all the time. A team is up three points in the waning seconds. Should they foul the other team? Conventional wisdom has long been no, no you don't. You force them to shoot the three, a low percentage shot made harder by the fact that you can guard against it specifically. But conventional wisdom has been shifting in recent seasons.

The study, by the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective, bears this out. There were 443 of these situations last season, and 52 teams chose to foul.

But here's the interesting part. While the teams that didn't foul ended up winning slightly more often than those who did, the difference wasn't statistically significant. The conclusion: there's no advantage to be gained by either fouling or not fouling.

But wait, we said, measuring wins isn't the best metric. It doesn't take into account instances where the losing team gets another possession. The Harvard brainiacs were ahead of us on this one, running the numbers and calculating the percentages of the losing team going on to score three or more points. Again, the difference between fouling and not fouling wasn't statistically significant.

But here's where we point out that stats don't tell the whole story, Billy Beane. "In only 3 of 52 cases did a team miss the 2nd free throw, successfully get the offensive rebound, and score."

And therein lies the problem with this study. The whole purpose of fouling when up three is to force exactly that scenario. The rest of the times that the team being fouled ended up scoring three, it was because they were fouled in the act of shooting the three. They went on to sink all three free throws.

This suggests to us that fouling when up three is the right call, as long as it's done right. If you don't wait until the shooter puts up a shot to foul him, you can guarantee a win 49 out of 52 times. That's a better bet then not fouling at all, by a wide margin.

So in the end, it comes down to smart coaching, and smart playing. As it always has.

UPDATE: The analysis's author comments among us! And responds below.

Up Three, Time Running Out, Do We Foul? The First Comprehensive CBB Analysis [HSAC]