“You're (criticized) if you do, (criticized) if you don't,” Purdue's Matt Painter says.
We're going to bring clarity and certainty today to a 50 shades of coaching gray area.
Submitted for your approval: a nail-biter of a game that comes down to the closing seconds. Team A has a three-point lead. Team B has the ball with a chance to force overtime with a three-pointer. Should Team A play defense or foul to burn time off the clock?
It could happen Wednesday night, when Indiana hosts Nebraska and Purdue plays at Wisconsin. So many Big Ten games come down to the last few possessions, and if you've paid attention to the conference's competitive balance this season, you know nothing is assured until BTN says it is.
So let's say Purdue and Indiana go down to the end with a three-point lead. What do Painter and Tom Crean do?
Crean's one etched-in-stone rule is that he has no etched-in-stone rule.
“It depends on a lot of things,” he says. “It's not a hard-fast rule for me. If I had to error on one side, I'd go with not fouling because too many things can go wrong.”
Painter has a similar approach.
“I have traditionally not fouled. In 10 years I've been burned once by doing that — Northwestern my first year here hit a three-pointer.”
There are factors to consider, including time, distance, personnel, location and whether tell-it-like-it-is Dan Dakich is calling the game. What you do at home you might not do on the road.
Then again, you might.
“There are different views of it, different strategies for it,” Crean says. “It all depends on the situation.”
Generally, if more than 10 seconds remain, you don't foul. Depending on the coach, that could go to six seconds. Less than that, the foul strategy becomes more attractive.
“The time is important,” Painter says. “Where the ball is, is important. If it's in the half court, whether side out or out of bounds. If it's five to six seconds or less, a lot of people consider that a time to foul.”
Ideally, you use as much time as possible, foul and put the team on the line. If the opposing player makes both free throws, you in-bound the ball, get fouled, go to the free-throw line, make your free throws, leave no time for the other team to score, get a hug from Dick Vitale and move on to the next game.
More ideally, if the opposing player misses a free throw that requires a rebound, you get the rebound, get fouled, go to the line, make your free throws, leave no time for the other team to score, get that Vitale hug and move on to the next game.
But then, for both Purdue and IU this season, the ideal rarely happens.
“I'm not big on losing the game," Crean says. “If you have to go to overtime, fine.”
A big worry is the Team B makes the first free throw, misses the second, gets the rebound and then makes a put-back for the tie. Or, worse, it gets fouled making the put-back and wins the game.
“You have got to be really good at rebounding that free throw,” Crean says.
“Look at Noah (Vonleh) and the couple of put-backs he's had lately. It only takes one mistake to be costly.”
That's why Crean has a play-defense preference.
“It's worked a lot with trusting the defense. When you have a team that can switch every position, it's better to (play defense)," he says.
“It's not always the case,” Crean says. “A lot of it depends on who is on the floor. When you've got guys who can make free throws, you have to be careful. Teams can really rebound off the free-throw line. All they have to do is keep it alive.”
Last week Purdue had a tough game with Michigan. With 12.2 seconds left and the Boilers ahead 76-75, Kendall Stephens rebounded a missed Wolverine shot, was fouled and went to the line facing a bonus situation.
He missed the free throw; Michigan rebounded and wound up winning. But say Stephens had made both free throws, putting the Boilers up 78-75.
What would Painter have done?
“There are a lot of things turning over there,” he says. “You're coming off made free throws. They're attacking in full court. If you go early and foul, with five to eight seconds left, you've left a lot of time for things to happen.”
And so, we've come full circle. Do you foul or play defense?
“I usually go with defense,” Crean says.
“Having said all that,” he says, “tomorrow it could change.”
In the end, if you win, it's all good. If you lose, you're a bum.
“I've probably not fouled, in 10 years, 25 to 30 times,” Painter says. “It's cost me once. That's a pretty good percentage. But right when you don't foul, and then you get beat or go into overtime, someone will say, you should have fouled.
“The one thing is, when you make the right call, no one tells you. When you make the wrong call, that's when you hear it."
Fifty shades of coaching gray, it seems, isn't always what it seems.