Foul Strategy?

Law Professor, Steven Lubett, of Northwestern University has posed the following question (via Alex Kozinsky) about optimal strategies for committing fouls near the end of basketball game:

With about 12 seconds to play in the first overtime of the regional final, Michigan State made two free throws to take a 3 point lead. Kentucky in-bounded the ball under its own basket.

Why didn’t Michigan State commit a foul in the backcourt? That would give Kentucky two free throws and no opportunity to attempt a 3 point shot. Even if they make both, the ball returns to State with a one point lead and a chance to run out the clock, which by then would be down to about 8 seconds. Instead, Kentucky made a last-gasp 3-pointer and sent the game into another overtime. Then the same thing happened in the second overtime. About 14 seconds to play and State with a 4 point lead. They let Kentucky make an uncontested layup — and the announcers kept saying “State won’t foul.” Of course they wouldn’t foul on the shot, but again, why not foul in the backcourt?

Stated more generally: teams that are behind usually foul to get the ball back. Why don’t teams that are ahead (by 3 or more points) do the same? The strategy of fouling while ahead seems to have obvious advantages in the waning seconds of a close game, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it done. Does this tell us something generally about strategic innovation? or am I just missing something?

I must admit, I wondered the same thing when I saw the highlights.

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Author: John Palmer

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