Late Game Fouling in Basketball

The NCAA tournament starts today, which makes it as good of a time as any to discuss the awfulness of late-game fouling. This farce goes on in basketball all the time, both college and pro, but becomes much more in the “do or die” environment of the NCAA tournament. The end of any close game becomes a series of intentional fouls and a parade of free throw attempts. Not only is this boring and unbearable to watch, but it takes the game away from what it should be. It’s the equivalent of shootouts in soccer and hockey, and doesn’t always reward the team who played better for the first 38 to 39 minutes of the game. There has to be a better way.

These fouls at the end of games a intentional. In most cases they are clearly intentional. At any other point during the game these types of fouls could be called as intentional/clear-path/flagrant fouls. But for whatever reason in the last two minutes of the game this goes out the window and the intentional nature of the fouls is not taken into account. Wrapping a guy up or slapping him on the back as he runs by seems like it would be easy to rule as an intentional foul. These fouls should not only include foul shots but possession of the ball as well. This does not seem like a long term solution though, as many teams would just get better at making the fouls seem less obvious. But that would take time, and would not always work.

The better alternative is probably to change the penalty (bonus) structure of fouls. In the NBA, after the 5th foul in the quarter, or second foul in the last two minutes of the half two free throw shots are rewarded. This is considered being in “penalty”. In college basketball this occurs at seven team fouls in the half, after which point the team being fouled is awarded one foul shot. If they make it, they get a second. After 10 team fouls in a half, the team being fouled is then awarded two free throws regardless of whether they make or miss the first one. College basketball does not speed up this process in the final two minutes the way the NBA does. In order words, if a team only has committed four fouls prior to the final two minutes they must commit three more before the other team shoots free throws.

There are a lot of different ways things could go here. The ultimate goal however would be to discourage excessive intentional fouling in the last couple of minutes. Bill Simmons has suggested simply modifying the rule so that in the final two minutes of a half a team can chose to either take the free throw shots or retain possession of the ball. This is an interesting idea but it seems unlikely that most teams would do that. Too many things can go wrong on the inbound pass. There might be occasions where the person fouled is such a bad free throw shooter that it makes sense to take the ball instead, but it doesn’t seem like it would happen too often.

A better idea would be to give the team free throw shots and the ball after a certain point. In college it could be adding a third level of penalty (the triple bonus) that kicks in at 12 or 13 total fouls or at two or three fouls in the last two minutes. This would force teams to play different way and not resort to just hack-a-thons to try and make a comeback. Might it take away a few miracle comebacks here and there? Probably. But the game would be better for it overall.

Remember that there was a time when the shot clock didn’t exist. Teams would get way ahead and then just play “four corners” and pass the ball around for minutes killing time. This was not only boring but took away from the spirit of the game. No one can imagine what the game would be like before then who didn’t see it then. A “strategy” for a winning team was to just pass it around forever. So while there would be an adjustment period to any sort of change like this, over the long term it would be best for the quality of the game. Regardless what the change is, it has to make things better than they currently are.