Foul when leading by three? No need

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NFL coaches have it easy. They have a cheat sheet that tells them when to go for two. But when a college basketball coach finds his team up by three with time running out, no one tells him if his guys should foul – and send the trailing team to the free-throw line – or simply play defense.

Kansas State elected not to foul Xavier’s Jordan Crawford during the NCAA tournament, and Crawford hit a 35-foot shot to send the ball into OT. Michigan State didn’t foul Maryland and ended up with the W.

So is there a right answer?

Harvard student John Ezekowitz put his Ivy League education to good work and determined there’s no advantage to either strategy. From his rundown at Harvard Sports Analysis:

In the 2009-2010 season, I found 443 instances where a team held the ball down three points during their last possession of a period (either the end of the 2nd half or an overtime period). In 391 of those cases, the team leading did not foul. In 52 cases, the team chose to foul. While the unequal sample sizes aren’t ideal, the 52 cases of fouling are significantly more than found in Winston’s NBA study (27).

Of the 52 teams that committed a foul, six lost the game for a winning percentage of 88.46%. Of the 391 teams that did not foul, 33 lost the game for a winning percentage of 91.56%. Both a two sample t-test of proportion and a Chi-squared test fail to reject the null hypothesis that there is a difference in winning percentage between the two strategies. In this sample, teams that did not foul won slightly more often. For the less statistically inclined, this means that there is no significant difference between the two strategies.

Who wants to bet fans choose to ignore (or not believe) this during the season?

Mike Miller’s also on Twitter @BeyndArcMMiller, usually talkin’ hoops. Click here for more.