Endgame Management: “One Stop, One Score” Sounds Logical, But It’s Not

You’re going to watch more college basketball on television than you can possibly stand over the next four days, and the cycle will be repeated the following Thursday through Sunday as well during the first (sprawling) weekend of the NCAA tournament.

When you watch waves of games — one after the other — it will be easy to get caught up in the action. Game X at 12:15 Eastern will encounter a wild finish at 2:30, and just when that game ends, Game Y with a 12:35 tip time will be careening down the stretch, and you’ll slide over to the final four minutes of that game. Will you be able to process all the endgame-management situations that will be coming your way?

We got a taste of the Madness on Wednesday, as several power-conference tournaments trotted out their first-round games. Many of these teams are not going to be playing next week, and many others will be headed for the NIT and CBI. The consequences might not have been as substantial… which is why these games offered a perfect training ground for what’s ahead.

Of all the endgame management situations which emerged on Wednesday, none stood out as clearly as the one which greeted Nebraska in its Big Ten tournament first-round game against Penn State. How this situation was handled should serve as a warning to other coaches in the coming days of craziness.

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Here’s your game reset: Nebraska hit a three-pointer to pull within one point of Penn State, 66-65, with 43 seconds left in this game. Penn State had the possession arrow, but that’s kind of a peripheral detail in the grander scheme of things. (To be more precise, it’s a peripheral detail even though it wound up mattering. We’ll explain.)

What makes this situation even more revealing is that Penn State called timeout with 39 seconds left to avoid a turnover and also set up its play. During that timeout, Nebraska coach Tim Miles had a chance to fully consider — in the heat of competition — whether he wanted to foul Penn State or not. It’s not as though the flow of continuous action prevented a coaching staff from being able to think through a decision. Miles was given the ability to make a concrete choice during that timeout with 39 seconds to go.

Let’s recap what happened first:

After the timeout, Nebraska and Miles did not foul. Penn State smartly used up all 35 seconds of the shot clock, releasing a shot at the very end. The shot hit the rim and pinballed around several sets of hands before a tie-up was created with 5.1 seconds left. Penn State kept the ball due to having the possession arrow in its favor. The Nittany Lions were then fouled with 4.2 seconds left. They made two foul shots, and a subsequent Nebraska heave at the end of a mad dash up the right side of the floor was no good just before the buzzer sounded. Penn State walked away with a 68-65 win.

In review, it’s obviously true that the possession arrow helped Penn State a lot, giving the Nittany Lions — in essence — those two foul shots and the ability to lead by three, not just one, when Nebraska got the ball back. Yet, the larger story here is that even if Nebraska had the possession arrow, the Huskers would have had only 5.1 seconds (0.9 seconds more than they actually received) for their final possession in the first place.

This is where our discussion delves into the details of fouling when trailing by one or two points.

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As you can see, a made three-pointer by Nebraska with 43 seconds left put an eight-second differential between game and shot clock. This sets up the discussion about when to foul when trailing by only one or two points in the final minute of a game.

Nebraska wound up with 4.2 seconds, but would have had only 5.1 even if it got the benefit of the possession arrow at the end.

What can be said about those amounts of time? Basically, this: 5.1 seconds (the larger amount of the two) is still not enough time to bring the ball down the court and run a normal halfcourt set. With only 5.1 seconds left, you cannot advance the ball 70 feet or thereabouts, to the top of the key, and have your point guard call out a play which witnesses the normal actions you see in a halfcourt set: high-low screens, staggered screens, V-cuts, UCLA cuts, elevator screens, the whole menu of options.

It should stand to reason that if you want to have your best possible chance of winning, you should at least have enough time to run a true play, without having to rush the ball upcourt in a blind panic. You should be able to settle into a halfcourt situation and run one of your best plays with enough time to give all five of your players enough mental space in which to read the defense and make coordinated adjustments. If you’re limiting yourself to 5.1 seconds, you’re not giving yourself that chance.

Tim Miles thought it was okay to concede 35 seconds to Penn State, plus the few seconds of time it took for the rebound of the missed shot to be contested. He was very clearly wrong, regardless of which team had the possession arrow at the 5.1-second mark of regulation in Chicago.

Here’s why it’s necessary to foul if you’re trailing by one or two points and the shot-game clock differential is anything under 12 to 15 seconds, in the simplest possible terms: Unless everything breaks just right in those 12 to 15 seconds, you’re not going to be able to craft a play which gives your players the time and space they need to break down a defense. 

Sure, we see defenses fall asleep all the time in the final 10 seconds of a game, as players — either nervous or perhaps too caught up in the excitement of the moment — become bystanders and watch that backside cutter or that weakside rebounder get to the rim for a big basket. However, if a defense is alert, something in the area of 10 seconds will limit a team’s ability to explore all options if it needs to go 94 feet for a bucket.

If you don’t foul and the shot-game clock differential is under 12 to 15 seconds, you need to be able to get the rebound cleanly, to initiate your possession as soon as possible. However, what if you don’t cleanly grab the rebound, as Nebraska failed to do against Penn State?

If you don’t foul in this situation, you will either need a point guard who can race the ball up the court or a big man you can depend on to make a quick outlet pass. What if the defense takes one of those options away, or what if the scramble action on the rebound puts one or both of those players in a bind, and you have no timeouts left?

Everything has to go just right, and if you are limiting yourself to 10 or fewer seconds, you are not maximizing your team’s chances of winning… which is what coaching is about in any high-level sport.

Consider, finally, the flip side: What if you DO foul? You force your opponent to make one pressure free throw after another over the course of the final 40 to 50 seconds in a game. You don’t even have to make threes. You can keep getting twos, and as soon as the opponent misses just one free throw, you’re in position to tie with another deuce. If the opposition misses more than one foul shot and you relentlessly score two-point baskets in those final 40 to 50 seconds, you’ll win.

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Getting one stop and one score in the final 10 to 15 seconds of a game — it sounds so simple, and the logic is so clear and linear. However, with a 35-second shot clock instead of 24, and with no “automatic advance” rule out of timeouts as exists in the NBA, college coaches are much more limited in options if they don’t foul when trailing by a point with a shot-game clock differential under 12 to 15 seconds.

Nebraska won’t make the NCAA tournament. Other teams seeking a bid — or trying to enhance their seeding for the Big Dance — should pay attention to what happened to the Huskers and Tim Miles on Wednesday. Their place on the bracket could depend on how they handle this endgame management situation.

About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is the editor of Crossover Chronicles, covering the NBA. He is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments. He contributes to other Bloguin sites, such as The AP Party.

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