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Fouling When Up Three: Good Idea Or Not?

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Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

One of the few things I thought Sidney Lowe got right was his tendency to foul late in games when his team was up three points, sending the opponent to the free throw line rather than letting it attempt a three-pointer to tie. I feel like this is the best way to handle a situation where there are only like 6-7 seconds (my arbitrary cut-off) to go in the contest. But there is some evidence that suggests just letting a team go ahead and try for the three-pointer might be the more optimal play. Ken Pomeroy recently looked into it.

I found this really interesting:

Another reason the fouling strategy isn’t as useful as one would think is that teams really stink at three-pointers when the defense knows they need one and there is a significant time constraint. In the 814 cases studied, teams made 98 out of 608 three-point shots (16.1%) during the possession in question. Basically, assume a player is about half as effective as normal in hitting threes when his team is down three facing a limited clock. He might even be worse since it’s possible these shots were skewed towards more effective shooters.

Confirmation bias is a major factor in how we perceive late-game strategy (among many, many other things). NC State Shit is confirmation bias gone mainstream, though it has given us a lot of jokes, and I wouldn't dare stand in its way. Sometimes NC State Shit does feel palpable. We remember the times that end-of-game situations went improbably wrong--remember that jerk from Marquette, you know, what's-his-name, who hit that triple in the RBC?--but we tend not to retain those exhale-inducing moments of late-game anticlimax of the positive variety. This I think is totally natural.

Pomeroy didn't find a significant difference between the two strategies, and while the non-foul tactic resulted in a slightly higher win percentage, it also resulted in overtime games a bit more often. So now I'm not sure what the hell the best idea is at the end. NC State can screw absolutely any scenario up***, so maybe it doesn't matter.

(***The NC State Shit mentality strikes again!),