Let’s debate: to foul or not to foul

Let’s debate: to foul or not to foul

It’s been a tough week and a half for the basketball team so let’s take a look back at the last win – vs. UC.


Truck had just turned the ball over and there was 13 seconds left in the game. West Virginia held a slim 3 point lead over Huggins old school, the Cincinnati Bearcats and then the inevitable question was asked by one of the announcers: to foul or not to foul.

The premise behind fouling, as many know, is that you only get 2 shots and you don’t need to be mathematician to know that 2 points does not make up a 3 point deficit. Of course, many things can happen and you can still find a way to lose despite fouling.

In this particular game, Huggins chose not to foul. UC decided to take the quick 2, but missed and the game was essentially over at that point. It worked out not to foul this time.

Against Baylor, WVU held a 3 point lead late and again chose not to foul. Baylor sank a 3, the game went to OT and the rest is history.

Two games, the same decision in the end and two different outcomes.

My assumption is that Huggins simply trusts his defense to get the job done…thus no foul.

Personally, I think I would take the chance and foul in these situations, but this Huggins guy has 700+ wins to his credit so it’s hard to argue with his decisions.

So which way is best – fouling or relying on your defense when up by 3? For the answer to this question, I have to turn to a place that is much smarter than I am: Harvard.

The guys over at the this unique blog focused in on the ’09-’10 college basketball season. Here were their findings:

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.

There you have it folks. This study basically concluded that it really doesn’t matter. Despite the numbers, I believe that I would still roll the dice and foul when up by 3. What would you do?

About the Author

Ern is the generalist of the group. He contributes original content, posts links to news articles, tracks all the developments in Morgantown, keeps his pulse on the Mountaineer fan nation, etc... he does it all.