"Dumb loses more games than smart wins." -- Bob Knight
I was a young assistant coach on Mike Krzyzewski's staff in 1992 for the Duke-Kentucky NCAA regional final in Philadelphia, the site of Christian Laettner's iconic shot. On that last play, Kentucky did not put a defender on the ball and allowed Laettner to catch the ball and shoot it for fear of fouling. That play has been dissected by me and countless others as an example of how to handle a late-game situation. I learned a ton from that play.
There is no more stressful or pressure-filled time in a college player's career than at the end of an NCAA tournament game. The tournament carries with it great importance, and a palpable finality, and the players feel it. There are variables to process, most notably time and score, and quick decisions, reads and reactions must be made and executed. In some instances, we have seen smart win. In more instances, we have seen dumb lose.
Here's my take on a few late-game situations that have made headlines from this year's tournament:
Wiith 14 seconds remaining and in possession of the ball on the baseline with a two-point lead, Texas sophomore Jordan Hamilton called a timeout. Arizona was not in position to commit an immediate foul, and possession of the ball was not threatened. The time out provided an opportunity to get everyone on the same page and substitute, but it also provided Arizona with the chance to regroup and force Texas to inbound the ball 94 feet from its basket from a spot throw-in.
Was the timeout smart? Probably not, but it was not a killer. Texas should expect to be able to inbound the ball cleanly and get fouled. But it was not at all ideal. Hamilton should have held the ball until he was fouled.
Davidson's Bob McKillop has a great motto for his team's out-of-bounds defense. He says he wants five guys defending all-out for five seconds. That's what Arizona did. Cory Joseph, a freshman, inbounded the ball for Texas. Arizona put size on the ball, and Texas could not get the ball in. Joseph needed to have a clear count in his head, and when he couldn't get the ball in at the count of three, call time out. But he did not, and that was not a smart play on his part.
We can focus on the count, but that is not the point. We cannot expect an official to get a count exactly right down to the hundredth of a second. There are inbounds situations throughout every game, and Texas did not get the ball in. Joseph's teammates did not present themselves as receivers and did not get open, Joseph did not find anyone quickly or call timeout.
Texas had the last shot, put the ball in the hands of sophomore guard J'Covan Brown, who is an excellent scorer and was having a great offensive game. Brown took too much time getting the ball up court but drove to the right of the lane and lofted up a shot around and over three Arizona defenders. When three defenders try for a block, the offensive glass is usually wide open, and Gary Johnson secured the offensive rebound. But because Brown took too much time to get the ball up court, there was no time for a put-back.
Bottom line: These players are freshmen and sophomores, and mental mistakes were made. No matter how much these situations are drilled and practiced, there is no accounting for what players will do under stress in an NCAA tournament game. This was a game in which Texas made some questionable decisions late that contributed to the loss, but also a game in which Arizona made winning plays.
In perhaps the most bizarre finish in recent NCAA tournament memory, Pittsburgh had the ball and a one-point lead, 69-68. But the Panthers could not get a shot off and were whistled for a shot-clock violation, giving Butler the ball with 9.2 seconds remaining.
After timeouts by both teams, Butler ran a play similar to the last play against Old Dominion, in which Shawn Vanzant made a right hand drive and a brilliant pass to Andrew Smith to seize a one-point lead, 70-69, with 2.2 seconds left.
With no timeouts, Pittsburgh inbounded the ball and got it to Gilbert Brown around midcourt, when Shelvin Mack, who had been brilliant with 30 points, tried to challenge Brown and pushed him out of bounds. It was a clear foul, despite Brad Stevens' initial protestations. And, it was perhaps the dumbest foul in Mack's terrific career. Mack later called it the dumbest foul in Butler history. While a bit hyperbolic, he may have been right.
With 1.4 seconds to go, Brown, having perhaps his best game of the season, hit the first of his two free throws to tie the game at 70-70. His second free throw was missed, bounded left and was grabbed by Matt Howard. Butler would have to go the length of the floor in less than a second, which would be next to impossible. But, as Howard grabbed the rebound, Nasir Robinson grabbed Howard and clearly and inexplicably fouled him. And, with 0.8 seconds to go, Butler walked 94 feet for two free throws to win the game.
Bottom line: The last two seconds of this game provided two of the dumbest fouls you will ever see by two smart and accomplished players. It was like a bizarre poker game where Pittsburgh said, "I see your dumb foul -- and I raise you." Mack gave the Panthers a gift, but they re-gifted it right back to Butler. In a strange way, the right team won, but in an excruciating and head-scratching fashion.
There is no good explanation for the fouls, except to acknowledge that bad and dumb things can happen under the strain of competition. Both Mack and Robinson were trying to make positive plays, trying to make winning plays. But neither play was disciplined.
Pete Carril defined discipline as "behaving wisely." In the last few seconds, neither team behaved wisely from a basketball perspective. For two very smart and disciplined teams, that was a brutal ending to a very well played game.
With 8.7 seconds remaining and a 72-71 lead, Duke's Nolan Smith had two free throws to stretch the lead to three. After making the first, Smith missed the second, and Michigan had a chance to tie or win. Without calling a timeout, Michigan guard Darius Morris brought the ball up court and drove the middle of the lane for a floater to tie. Morris had Stu Douglass on the right for an open 3, but his shot in the lane was a good one.
Bottom line: Not calling timeout is a good strategic decision that allows your offense to get the ball up court against a scrambling defense that is not set. The defense is more likely to make a mistake in that situation, and you are more likely to get a good shot. Morris could have passed the ball for a shot to win, but his decision to take the shot in the lane was a good one. He just missed. Making or missing is the difference between winning and losing, and in a strategic decision being overlooked and celebrated.
With Washington trailing 84-83 with 7.4 seconds remaining, Washington guard Justin Holiday was set to inbound the ball on the baseline with a chance for a go-ahead score. Standing in his way to contest the pass was North Carolina's John Henson, perhaps the most unique and effective defender in the country. Henson has a freakishly long wingspan of 88 inches, which is sure to make every tailor in Chapel Hill drool with anticipation, but also make every inbound passer cringe.
Holiday tried to get the ball over Henson's massive reach, but Henson deflected it. North Carolina's Dexter Strickland secured the steal and was fouled with 5.4 seconds left. Strickland hit both free throws to stretch the lead to three, but Washington still had a chance to tie.
Senior Venoy Overton dribbled up the right side of the floor, guarded by Kendall Marshall, and launched a right-handed heave around midcourt. There was plenty of time on the clock to get further down court and get a better shot. The heave was short and was headed straight into the hands of Henson under the basket, or out of bounds altogether. Henson tried to catch it, then pulled his hands back, and the ball went out of bounds, possession to Washington with 0.5 seconds.
The Huskies inbounded the ball to the corner, and Isaiah Thomas threw up a fadeaway jumper. As the ball got toward the rim, appearing short, Henson appeared to have touched it as it reached the rim. The shot attempt was a 2 and not a 3, so it did not matter that an official could have, arguably, considered a goaltending call.
Bottom line: Holiday's pass would have been easier to complete with a pass fake. But Henson's length made the play, rather than Holiday failing to make play. Overton made a mistake in launching the shot way too soon. With 5.4 seconds remaining, you should expect to be able to get the ball to the rim, or at least get to the 3-point line for a better shot.
Henson was mildly criticized for not allowing the ball to go out of bounds. That was certainly an option, but I felt at the time that all he needed to do was to catch it. The ball was right in his hands, and if he catches it, the game is over.
Even though Thomas' shot was short and it was unclear whether Henson touched it, Henson should probably not have even gone near it. All in all, the end of game situation was well handled by North Carolina.