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Foul or Defend?

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Xavier let it ride and won the game, but the eternal question remains.

NCAA Basketball: Xavier at Georgetown Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

“I see it all perfectly; there are two possible situations - one can either do this or that. My honest opinion and my friendly advice is this: do it or do not do it - you will regret both.”

Danish basketball theorist Soren Kierkegaard never solved the quandry of the foul or defend. His famous “you will regret both” is borne out every time a team fails to foul and surrenders a game tying three or does foul but then fails to convert on their end.

Kierkegaard passed before he figured out foul or defend (possibly leading to his eventual “whether you hang yourself or do not hang yourself, you will regret both” conclusion) and therefore missed the 2007 NCAA tournament game where Greg Oden blatantly cheated and Sean Miller elected not to foul with a three point lead late. Ron Lewis drilled a three, Xavier lost, and every member of Xavier Nation was transported right back to that moment on Sunday.

Like Miller, Travis Steele elected not to foul. Georgetown’s three pointer went begging, only just, and Xavier took a vital Q1 bubble win. Twitter was, predictably and reasonably, split. Coach Steele himself said in the post game press conference that he feared a tip back out by one of Georgetown's active bigs. Both Q and Tyrique Jones advocated for playing for the stop, so X did. Left unsaid was that this team in a free throw shooting contest is a recipe for disaster.

So which is correct? Up three with less than ten seconds left, what should the defending team do? In this day and age there is surely data on which the correct choice is.

There is data, actually, but it isn’t as helpful as you might think. Both Ken Pomeroy and Harvard Sports Analysis have looked at the foul or defend situation. First off, teams that are up three with under 10 seconds to play are in a great situation. The other team needs to shoot a three pointer in that possession (please ignore announcers saying a quick two is the way to go, it isn’t) and the leading team has a better than 85% chance of winning no matter which option they take.

Yes, no matter which option they take. Unless you foul a three point shooter, which still leads to a win far more often than not, it essentially doesn’t matter if you choose to foul or defend. The numbers as run by KenPom and by Harvard show that the only difference in the outcome between fouling or defending is statistical noise. Neither strategy is more or less likely to lead to a win. A team that has played itself into a three point lead with only seconds left is going to win roughly 90% of the time whether they foul or whether they defend. There is no meaningful statistical difference.

The reason the foul argument has gained so much traction recently is because in not fouling the emotional impact of a made three pointer registers heavily. That makes it seem like foul was the right choice because of the very immediate feedback of watching the other team celebrate tying the game. However, Ken Pomeroy’s numbers found that teams shoot 16.1% behind the arc on those possessions when the leading opponent chooses to defend and they actually get a shot off.

All of which brings us back to Soren Kierkegaard, the founder of rational basketball philosophy. When it comes to foul or defend you can do it, or do it not, you may very well regret it either way.