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Crunch Time

January 23, 2004 Columns No Comments

Crunch Time: Breaking Down the Game’s Final Minutes

by Jim Woods

If you are sitting at your computer and you watched a game this past week go down to the last possession, raise your hand. Well, I hope you are not sitting by yourself at the computer with your hand raised, but if you are, you’re not alone. Just this past Saturday during my marathon watching of 24 college games in six hours (a column I began to write but it was way too long), I saw at least six games decided in the last four minutes. Being somebody who loves to watch the chess match between coaches, you cannot ask for better viewing. Each team has their own strategy for erasing a deficit, some work and some do not. And sometimes strategy goes out the window and a little luck does not hurt. I am going to break down some situations for you and give you an idea of some things you should look for the next time you watch a game go right down to the wire.

The Game Reset

By the time a game reaches the under four media timeout of the second half, you can usually recognize that it is going to come right down to the final few possessions. This media timeout is when I want to know how many timeouts each team has and what the team foul situation is. I think in this day and age of college basketball with the amount of freshman and sophomores playing critical minutes, it is extremely important to have some timeouts to use to coach your team possession by possession in the closing moments. How you manage your timeouts throughout the game is going to decide what you can use at the end. I watched a game this weekend where Fordham used their one allotted full timeout when they trailed 18-17 with 7:27 remaining in the first half. I question using your one full in that situation for two reasons: 1) you are in one point game and 2) the under eight media timeout still hasn’t happened. They scored coming out of the timeout to take the lead back (so the timeout was effective), but on the next possession a ball was deflected out of bounds and the full media timeout occurred at 7:02. I believe that one full timeout is so precious and you need to hold on to it. If you feel you need a timeout in the first half and that media timeout is coming on the next dead ball or within a minute, use one of your four 30 second timeouts.

I was amazed the other night watching Mississippi State play Kentucky when Dick Vitale began to go off on a tangent about a Bulldog player committing an obvious reach in foul when they had a lead with under 30 seconds remaining. What Mr. Vitale failed to realize until his partner pointed it out was that the Bulldogs still had a foul to give in that situation and it was actually a very smart play. I love that move. Your team has a lead or the game is tied and the shot clock is off, a great way to disrupt a set offense or a team holding for the final shot is to give a foul and make them inbound from the sideline. Especially if the opponent has no timeouts left. The inbounder doesn’t have the security of that timeout to bail him out as he tries to enter the ball. Extending the team foul situation from the final moments of the game, you can dictate your style of play defensively based on your fouls. I would be more aggressive in picking up full court and pressuring the dribbler in the last four minutes if I knew I had a couple of fouls to give.

To Three or Not To Three, That is the Question

Perhaps nothing else makes me more upset then when a team that is trailing in the final four minutes begins to launch reckless three point shots. I love the three point shot and it is a great weapon in the offensive game, but it is not the only way to comeback down the stretch. Too many players and teams rely to heavily on the shot once the game has reached the final two minutes and they trail by single digits. At this stage of the game, your mindset has to be “score quickly/high percentage shots.” A three point shot, contested or uncontested, is not as high a percentage as something going to the rim. In addition if you go inside or attack the rim on a drive, you increase the likelihood of drawing a foul and getting to the free throw line. The foul line is the best place to make up your deficit because no time is elapsing. The defense is also very cognizant of not wanting to commit a foul and often soften up on defense allowing easier drives to the rim.

Obviously there is a point where you have to begin to look for the three. How the other team shoots from the free throw line will often dictate when you should begin to rely on the three. The better they are on the line the earlier you may have to make up points quickly. I could go over numerous scenarios, but for the purposes of space let’s just look at the situation where a team is trailing by three points with the ball and there is one minute to twelve seconds remaining. During this time I think you absolutely have to still be looking to get to the basket and score easily and then set your defense to foul. (Having those precious timeouts saved up will allow you to better set your defense). Do not start launching the three point shot to look to tie. Many coaches refer to this as “extending the game.” Keep taking the easy basket going to the rim and fouling to put the other team on the line. The best scenario is you continue to make layups and they eventually miss a free throw. You then may tie the game without ever attempting a three point shot, or even winning it if you do knock in a three. I always like to see a team keep it a one possession game as long as possible. If you take a forced three point shot, miss, and they make a free throw you have two-possession game on your hands. From twelve to eight seconds I think you are looking for the best available shot. Inside of eight seconds you need to be looking for a three point shot for the tie.

Guarding the Lead

To protect a lead on offense in the closing minutes the foundation is quite simple. Protect the ball, take quality shots, and make free throws. I want to focus on a couple of scenarios defensively. One such scenario is when it is a one-possession game and the team trailing has to go the length of the court in a short amount of time. The defensive team cannot allow an easy path to the rim. Again you can’t be overly aggressive (unless you have team fouls to give) but you need to play some sort of three-quarter court pressure to slow down the dribbler. Another option is double teaming the primary ball handler and making a non-ball handler make decisions. Too often I watch teams have an unimpeded path to half court which allows them to conserve a great deal of time. This is also the reason why I do not like to see teams pull their two men off the free throw line when they are shooting free throws. I know the argument is, “what if you go over the back and foul, stop the clock, and give them an opportunity to score.” I agree with that, however, I want to have the opportunity to get an offensive rebound and I also want to again slow the other team off of a miss or make. You need to tell your players that on the release they should simply step backwards and only play for a long rebound. That is the only rebound you look to get. Other than that you are just there to slow down an outlet pass. Now if you are up by four points or more and less than five seconds then you pull the guys off the line and do not go near anybody.

Finally, the classic end of game defensive situation: up by three, less than ten seconds, do you foul? I am here to tell you no! I may be in a minority on this one, but here is why. I can remember as a young kid watching Tennessee play Kentucky and I can’t recall all the players involved but one team had a three-point lead in the closing seconds and chose to foul. The shooter stepped to line, made the first, missed the second, offensive rebound, basket, foul, and free throw is good. The team went from being up by three to losing by one. If you do not foul, the worse that can happen is overtime. I heard an analyst say the other night that fouling in that situation tells your team that you do not have the confidence in them to get a stop. I couldn’t agree more with his thinking. Play to win and have faith in your players.

Notes from “The Sideline”

• Yes, JJ Reddick can really shoot the ball. But do I have to hear so many times from Dickie V that he is the greatest shooter in college basketball since Chris Mullin? As of January 19th, he is not in the Top 30 in the NCAA Three Point Field Goal % category. I know that he is an outstanding free throw shooter as well, but let’s not get carried away yet. Remember, in Steve Alford’s only year with a three-point line he shot 53% and made seven in the NCAA title game.

• I think it is great that the Ohio Valley Conference match-up between Morehead State and Austin Peay was televised Saturday on ESPN2. I was quite surprised to see that. Magnus Magnusson must have blown out his rotator cuffs and they had to cancel World’s Strongest Man programming.

• If I’m a head coach, I’m hiring Howard Dean to give a pre-game speech.

• Call it the Syracuse Effect, but I have noticed more teams then ever before playing straight 2-3 zones. I counted at least seven teams I saw on TV Saturday playing zone for prolonged stretches.

• Congratulations to Billy Packer on setting a new second guessing record on Saturday’s call of Connecticut and UNC. Billy questioned Roy Williams’ small lineup eleven times in three minutes. Way to go Billy!

• A “Sideline Salute” to first year head coach Paul Biancardi for leading his Wright State Raiders to 6-1 record in the Horizon League. They currently are riding a five game win streak.

• I can’t believe people are knocking Pearl Washington making the Big East Silver Anniversary Team. Len Elmore suggested Allen Iverson in his place. No way! Iverson played two years with a minimal impact on the conference. The Pearl brought a level of excitement to every game at a time when the Big East was never more electric.

• The two best things coming out of South Carolina right now are Cameran from the “Real World” and South Carolina Gamecock basketball. Dave Odom’s club is off to quite possibly the most under-publicized 16-2 start in college hoop history.

• My Silver Anniversary Team (All Conferences): Tim Duncan, Danny Manning, Chris Mullin, Hersey Hawkins, Bobby Hurley.


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