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NCAA basketball debate: Defend the 3 or foul?

Xavier coach Sean Miller goes over the situation time and time again in practice.

How could he not, given how his Musketeers seemed on the cusp of a bracket-busting upset of No. 1 seed and No. 1-ranked Ohio State in the second round of last year's NCAA Tournament?

They led 62-59 with 9.3 seconds left, but, after a missed free throw, Ohio State's red-hot forward Ron Lewis swished a contested, NBA-range 3-pointer with two seconds to go that forced overtime. With that reprieve, the Buckeyes went on to win 78-71 and eventually reached the NCAA final.

What if Miller had told his players to foul before the shot, denying a chance at a tying 3-pointer? Would the Buckeyes have been able to make the first free throw, miss the second intentionally, control the rebound and get off a shot to tie or win the game?

"We've certainly gone over that and gone over that," Miller said. "It all comes down to, as a coach, what you feel comfortable doing. … It's a philosophy you have to have."

As this year's NCAA Tournament is about to begin, it appears an increasing number of coaches, perhaps influenced by Xavier's less-than-shining moment, are screaming "Foul."

Consider two recent examples:

Up 85-82 at home against South Carolina on Feb. 20, Florida coach Billy Donovan had Jai Lucas foul Devan Downey with 2.2 seconds left. Downey missed the first one, and the Gators rebounded it to end the game.

In the most anticipated showdown of the season three nights later, Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl didn't hesitate to have his team, up three, foul Memphis to preserve the No. 2-ranked Volunteers' win against the top-ranked and last undefeated team.

ESPN analyst Dick Vitale has been a longtime advocate of the strategy, confounded by coaches who don't play it that way.

"I know there are different philosophies, but I know what mine would be: Never, ever let them shoot the 3; it's too high of a percentage (shot)," he said. "And I think the percentage gets even higher late in the game because there's so much focus and concentration, and usually it's the best guy who's going to get the ball to shoot it. I'm going to absolutely put them on the foul line like Bruce Pearl did. There are too many special things that have to happen to lose the game."

For Pearl, ahead 64-61 with eight seconds to go, it came down to simple math.

"You've got to make one play. One play," he said. "If you foul, they've got to make three or four plays."

"I told them in the huddle, 'In all likelihood, they're going to foul us,' " Memphis coach John Calipari said. "We were ready. …We work on that three, four days a week."

Derrick Rose made the first free throw and missed the second as planned. But the ball wasn't tipped where the Tigers hoped, and Tennessee's Chris Lofton snared the rebound and made two clinching free throws.

One pitfall: What if the foul occurs as a 3-pointer is shot?

Pearl instructed Ramar Smith to foul Rose just as he crossed midcourt to make sure that wouldn't happen. But the same day, South Carolina led Mississippi State 50-47 with 6.1 seconds left. Coach Dave Odom wanted a foul, but his player was tentative, and the Gamecocks eventually fouled Ben Hansbrough on a 3-point try. He hit all three free throws with 1.1 seconds left, and the Bulldogs won 61-56 in overtime.

"We work on it some but not nearly enough," Odom conceded. "One of the problems in college vs. the NBA is that in the NBA, players can literally wrap their arms around the offensive player and not get called for an intentional foul.

"In college, you make that kind of wrap-around motion just to cover the guy, not to hurt him, (and) you're likely to get an intentional foul, which would give two shots and the ball. That, in part, discourages that particular tactic from being used as much as you'd think you'd see it. You got to have a little courage to do that … but I think it's a better tactic."

Another risk is a scenario Donovan has never forgotten.

As an assistant at Kentucky in 1993, the No. 2 Wildcats were up 77-74 and elected to foul Allan Houston with 4.9 seconds. Houston made the first free throw and intentionally misfired on the second. Tennessee's Corey Allen not only controlled the rebound and hit a short jumper, he also drew a foul and hit his free throw with 1.5 seconds left for a 78-77 win.

"I think you can make an argument that it's good to foul in that situation, and you can probably make the argument to let them take the Hail Mary shot, play the chances," Donovan said. "Every situation is different."

You can bet the choice will come up during March Madness. We might see it involving Xavier, and this time, Miller might just call for a foul.

"It's never as simple as, 'Let's foul so they can't win,' " he said. "But there's no question that is something that we would consider doing it if we felt comfortable with the time left. It makes sense to think that way because so many of our players have been scarred watching that ball go in."

Times staff writer Antonya English contributed to this report. Brian Landman can be reached at land

man@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3347.

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NCAA basketball debate: Defend the 3 or foul? 03/17/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 18, 2008 12:04am]

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