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Unwritten Rules and Reasonable Disagreements

Basketball is full of situations where reasonable people can disagree or unwritten rules must be followed. Here are four of the most common, broken down mathematically.

You want to try to pass around this?
You want to try to pass around this?
Kent Horner

Last night I was watching Michigan State play Iowa when, late in the overtime period, I overheard Jay Bilas say that "reasonable minds can disagree" on putting a defender on the inbounder in a full court situation. While this presupposes that Jay Bilas is a reasonable person (he wasn't actually that bad last night) it raised an interesting question in my mind: where in the average game do reasonable people disagree or do unwritten rules apply? I thought a bit and came up with these situations:

1. Guarding the inbounder-

We'll start with the one that came up last night. If pressing full court late in a game should you use a man to guard the inbounder, or leave five to guard the four remaining offensive players? The rationale behind not guarding the player throwing the ball in is that he then has to pick a target that is covered, while also avoiding the "safety" you are now playing. Assuming the other team has not drafted Peyton Manning into the rotation for just such a situation, this is probably going to be more difficult than your average inbound.

On the other hand, all five offensive players know where each other are going, and a good double screen leaves your safety deciding which open man to chase. If you'd rather play defense straight up, it's been proven that having a 6'10" man a foot in front of you jumping up and down and screaming can make even the simplest of tasks difficult. Trying to pick out a friendly face while someone with the wingspan of a small airplane tries to become as large as possible can be difficult, but all those friendly faces have to do is beat one man to get wide open.

I prefer: Guarding the inbounder. A well executed inbounds play gets a man free even if there is an extra defender. I'll take my chances with screens and let Jalen Reynolds take up most of someone's field of view.

2. Foul or defend-

This has to be the hot button issue of college ball right now. For years, teams played straight up defense in an attempt to shut the game down. For the sake of this discussion we'll assume a three point lead and between five and 12 seconds remain on the clock.

When a team gets a shot away it still only averages .95-.97 points per possession, and that assumes an actual shot, not just some sort of heave. Fouling leads to 1.4 points per possession and is essentially halving your lead automatically. Why risk that when shooters make about 16.1% of three pointers in the situation described above. Setting the defense and attacking the arc leaves you with a great chance of winning.

Teams cannot score three points if they don't shoot a three pointer. That, in a nutshell, is the argument behind fouling in the above described case. If you are reading this there is a decent chance you are a Xavier fan, and if you are a Xavier fan I only have to say "Ron Lewis" to remind you what can happen when you don't foul. Hack the guy, give up the two free throw attempts and win the game. After all, teams doing that have only outright lost in regulation seven times in the 814 instances this happened in the 2009-2012 seasons.

I prefer: To foul, but with a caveat. Frankly, it doesn't actually matter much which you do. If you defend, your chances of a win are 93.5%, if you foul your chances of an instant win are 92%. So yes, it's actually better to straight defend. On the other hand, if you foul you completely marginalize the chance for a loss or tie almost immediately, while I don't need to remind you again what happens if you don't.

3. Score the quick two-

This seems to be the favorite of color men everywhere. The trailing team gets the ball and some old, salty coach type announces that "they still have plenty of time for two" as there are 28 seconds on the clock and your favorite team trails by three,The trailing team races toward the rim, and, if they convert, starts to foul right away.

The first argument says that you just keep extending the game and scoring in twos until you absolutely have to have the three. If you score, you keep the pressure on your opponents to make free throws. There is a great variance on free throws in late situations, so you could get lucky and have them miss, leaving you with a better chance to win.

On the other hand, your opponent could just keep making free throws at their normal rate (which is the likely outcome) and leave you needing three anyway. Might as well start shooting early and get more bites at the apple. Racing at the rim is generally chaotic, whereas a set play for a three pointer can free up your best shooter in the situation you want.

I prefer: With some help from our resident number cruncher, here's what the probabilities say you should do. If you're down two or three with 30-50 seconds left, go for two. If down one or two with under 30 seconds left, go for two. If down three with under 30 seconds left (above scenario), shoot the three. In short, teams need to be shooting from deep far sooner than most announcers think they should.

4. Let the players decide it-

We'll again go a game this week for this example. Markel Starks of Georgetown beat his man on the outside late in the game, raced baseline and fed Reggie Cameron in the corner for a three. After the pass, Starks plowed into a defender outside the charge circle. The ref called player control and Bill Raftery exploded about the "unwritten rule" saying players should decide the game. Cut to Iowa's last shot last night, when Mike Gesell tried to finish through contact and nothing was called.

I prefer: That the refs keep calling the game in the manner in which they have. In the Iowa situation, Gesell took contact that would have been called a foul for most of that game, but nothing happened. Joel pointed out via text that it would have taken a great deal of fortitude to blow the whistle there, but that had been the call the players were expecting. In the Starks situation, Raftery's outburst ignored, the correct call was made. Players do decide the game, and sometimes they decide by committing stupid fouls.

There are many more we could go into: do you abandon the lane late when you have the lead? (No). Do you go two for one? (No, actually). Do you have to establish the post to free up shooters, or is it the other way around? And exactly how much jumping around should those guys on the end of the bench be doing? There are unwritten rules and reasonable disagreements aplenty in this game, and that is part of why it's so much fun to watch. Please, feel free to comment on these and add in some of your own.

All research on this page via Ken Pomeroy, Rice University, and ESPN play by play archives.