Sometimes Basketball Coaches Don't Understand Math

Frank Victores-USA TODAY Sports

Look, I understand that coaches want to give their teams the best chance to win. But sometimes coaches also need to face facts.

Six years ago, Bill James, the father of modern baseball advanced statistics, turned his eye to college basketball. In an article on Slate, he devised a method of determining when a lead in a college basketball game is safe from a comeback by the team that is currently losing.

His method:

  • Take the number of points one team is ahead.
  • Subtract three.
  • Add a half-point if the team that is ahead has the ball, and subtract a half-point if the other team has the ball. (Numbers less than zero become zero.)
  • Square that.
  • If the result is greater than the number of seconds left in the game, the lead is safe.

Seems pretty simple, right? James doesn't actually state it in his article, but I presume the subtraction of three is for a three pointer in the air as time expires. For effective purposes while watching a game and not wanting to use a calculator, I've eliminated the use of the half-points. Squaring whole numbers in your head is much simpler.

Let's use Monday's Creighton vs Villanova game as an example, due to the entertainment value of the large numbers involved. Creighton had a 54-41 lead at the half.

13 minus 3 = 10. 10 times 10 = 100. Creighton's lead at halftime would only be safe if there was 1:40 left on the clock, which was obviously not the case. The Jays took a 20 point lead with 14:47 remaining. 17 squared is 289 seconds, or 4:49, so still not safe. Doug McDermott put them up 30 with 11:44 left. 27 squared is 729 seconds, or 12:09. Thus, the lead was then safe.

Why am I making this point? So far in the month of January, there have been three occasions involving a Marquette basketball team where one of the coaches has failed to understand when the lead was safe and the game was over, and thus ordered their teams to continue fouling to extend the game.

January 4: DePaul at Marquette (Men's Basketball)

With 37 seconds left, and Marquette up by nine points, DePaul's Brandon Young commits a foul. It took DePaul 20 seconds after a missed Young layup to foul, but at that point, Marquette's lead was only safe with less than 36 seconds to play. So while this is definitely cutting things close, I can still understand why they would try. Todd Mayo split the free throws, and 12 seconds would wander off the clock before Charles McKinney turned the ball over. Another 11 seconds dissipated before Young fouled Jamil Wilson.

14 seconds left, Marquette up 10. That lead would be safe with 49 seconds left. A terrible foul. The game is over. Wilson hit both free throws and Greg Sequele came down and got a bucket for DePaul. McKinney fouls Wilson again with five seconds left. It's a 10 point lead again. It's literally impossible to make this margin up, unless the NCAA suddenly approves the 50 point Rock 'N' Jock basket.

Oliver Purnell and the Blue Demons looked ridiculous at the end of this game. But they wouldn't be alone for long.

January 18: Marquette at Butler (Men's Basketball)

With 1:12 left in over times and Butler up seven, Todd Mayo commits a foul. Lots of time left and a lead that would only be safe with 16 seconds left, so no problem here. Kellen Dunham makes both free throws, and Mayo responds with a layup, making the lead seven points again. Jake Thomas commits a flagrant/intentional foul with 52 seconds left. His heart's in the right place since there's still lots of time left, but by shoving Khyle Marshall out of bounds while approximately 80 feet away from the ball, Thomas gives Butler two free throws and possession of the ball.

Marshall splits his free throws, and Thomas fouls Kameron Woods on the ensuing possession. Eight point lead, 47 seconds left. Still ok. Woods makes both free throws making the lead 10, and Mayo misses a three pointer with 40 seconds left. The lead is now safe.

Marquette would go on to commit three more fouls in the final 36 seconds of the game in a completely futile effort to extend the game. Thomas fouls with 36 seconds left while down 10, Davante Gardner fouls with 17 seconds left while down 12, and Jamil Wilson commits the most Jamil Wilson-ish foul possible, fouling out on a technical foul for deliberately pushing Marshall in the back with seven seconds left while down 11.

I'm seriously surprised that the Big East didn't suspend Wilson for pointlessly endangering player safety.

January 21: Providence at Marquette (Women's Basketball)

And now here's the granddaddy of them all. But first, some context.

Providence's Tori Rule hits a three pointer, cutting what used to be an 18 point Marquette lead down to just eight points with 1:21 to play. Providence proceeds to play defense until Brooklyn Pumroy hits a jumper with 54 seconds left. The 10 point lead is not safe. Apiew Ojulu commits a foul with 49 seconds left, sending PC's Sarah Beal to the line. She splits a pair, making the lead a still not safe nine points, and Providence grabs the offensive rebound.

Ashley Santos gets whistled for a very questionable foul on Rule's attempted three pointer with 39 seconds left, leading to the one of the most BALL DON'T LIE segment in known history: Rule misses her first two free throws and Providence commits a lane violation on the third, giving them no points.

Marquette inbounds, and Providence elects to play defense, forcing the ball loose and getting Santos to yank on the shoulder of a PC player, thus committing an offensive foul and a turnover with 34 seconds left. The lead is still nine points, and that lead became safe with 36 seconds remaining. Providence then takes 10 seconds off the clock while working to get a three point attempt for Rule, which she misses. PC's Karin Robinson hauls in the rebound and misses a putback, which Pumroy then grabs with 23 seconds left.

After all of this - the defending, the lack of urgency in getting a shot up, the missed free throws - Providence starts fouling down nine with 23 seconds left.

In fact, they would commit THREE fouls before the clock finally expired. Every single one of these fouls came within James' safe margin for this game. Why in the name of the basketball gods would you play defense for nearly the entirety of the 30 second shot clock while down eight with more than a minute to play and then foul while down the same margin with 16 seconds left, much less while down seven with two seconds left? It takes two seconds for the ball to travel from a player's hand to the rim on a three pointer. You CAN NOT win the game in that situation.

What was running through the minds of Oliver Purnell, Buzz Williams, and Susan Robinson Fruchtl in these situations? You can't win these games any more, and not only are you annoying the crap out of your opponents, you're actually driving your own fans crazy because they don't like how you're representing the team that they support. Just let the opponent dribble out the clock and then shake hands with the opposing coach. It's okay.

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