Vanderbilt Goof-up may have been a brilliant play.

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Wall Street Journal
By Andrew Beaton
Updated March 17, 2017 12:26 p.m. ET

In the final minute of Thursday’s Northwestern-Vanderbilt thriller, Commodores guard Matthew Fisher-Davis committed what is being hailed as a blunder for the ages. It was instantly ridiculed as a bone-headed, game-costing move that will live forever in March Madness infamy. But maybe that analysis—based on decades of conventional basketball wisdom—is completely wrong.

With 17 seconds left, Vanderbilt had taken a one-point lead. On the ensuing inbound pass, Fisher-Davis quickly fouled on purpose—seemingly thinking his team trailed by one. Northwestern guard Bryant McIntosh hit both free throws to take the lead. Northwestern won the game 68-66.

“He’s down about it,” Vanderbilt coach Bryce Drew said. “He made a mistake.”

However, the fact is that Fisher-Davis, intentionally or not, may have given his team a better chance at winning. And it’s a play that could change basketball if people weren’t so quick to make him a pariah.

This strategy seems totally insane and completely radical. There likely isn’t a single NBA or college coach that would try this.

Except to the rest of the world, it isn’t so crazy. International basketball teams are willing to try these things far more frequently. They think about it a different way: Would you rather have your offense, or the other team’s offense, decide the game?

This is all based on the fact that Vanderbilt, even with the one-point lead, was far from a guarantee to win. Northwestern had plenty of time to get a good shot off—one that would likely win it considering it was a one-point game and there wasn’t much time left.

That’s why the numbers say that if Fisher-Davis didn’t foul, the Commodores had just over a 50% probability to win. For one, consider that the Wildcats only needed a two-pointer and they hit 49% of their twos this season. They also, conveniently, hit 49% of their shots in this specific game. So if they could get off their average shot to end the game, Northwestern would have a 49% at winning, giving Vanderbilt a 51% chance to win, in this rough estimation.

But what about after the foul?

In this scenario, the game can play out a countless number of ways. But the idea behind fouling is that the foul creates all these various options, which could add up to a better probability than leaving the game up to the fate of a single Northwestern shot attempt.

The various permutations first center around whether Northwestern’s McIntosh, an 86% free throw shooter, would hit both free throws, just one of two, or miss both. Even in the 74% of times McIntosh hits both of his attempts, Vanderbilt then has its own possession to try and score. Giving Vanderbilt the same assumption we gave to Northwestern, that it could get off its average two-point shot (48%), that amounts to a 36% chance for the Commodores to win.

But there are various other scenarios where Vanderbilt can win as well—when Northwestern hits just one or none of its free throws. These are less likely to occur because McIntosh is a good free throw shooter, and involve some permutations where the game goes to overtime (and where the game is presumably a coin flip.)

Add the estimated probabilities of those scenarios (19%) to the above 36% and that gives Vanderbilt a 55% chance at winning when they foul, which if you recall is higher than the 51% if they didn’t. By this logic, Fisher-Davis increased the Commodores’ chance of winning.
Vanderbilt Coach Bryce Drew looks on during his team’s first-round loss in the NCAA Tournament.
Vanderbilt Coach Bryce Drew looks on during his team’s first-round loss in the NCAA Tournament. Photo: Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

To be sure, this relies on a simplistic set of assumptions. Some, such as the potentially generous shooting percentages or the potential for a Northwestern turnover, favor the argument not to foul. Others swing the other way: Imagine if Vanderbilt unintentionally fouled in the final seconds while Northwestern got off its last shot, but without enough time left to respond?

What’s ultimately clearest is that this was by no means a game-losing blunder. The advanced calculations at KenPom.com show that the options are very close: They give a Vanderbilt a 57.7% chance at winning after taking the one-point lead, while their numbers indicate a 52% chance for Vanderbilt winning even after fouling, factoring in for McIntosh’s probability of hitting the free throws.

So, at worst, Fisher-Davis marginally hurt the Commodores’ chance at winning. Perhaps his biggest mistake may not have been fouling, but his chosen target of McIntosh, an elite free-throw shooter.

What’s that, you say? No sane coach would ever take this approach?

In the 2006 FIBA championship semifinals, Argentina fouled Spain intentionally in a tie game. Spanish guard Jose Calderon made just one of his two free throws. The Argentines got just what they wanted—a chance to win the game. As it happens, they still lost when their final shot didn’t go in. Maybe if it did, Fisher-Davis wouldn’t have to hang his head in shame.