Optimal End-Game Strategy in Basketball
Annis, David H.
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When faced with protecting a three-point lead in the waning seconds of a basketball game, which is a preferable strategy: playing defense or fouling the offense before they can attempt a game-tying shot? Gonzaga University head coach, Mark Few, was faced with such a decision against Michigan State in the semi-finals of the Maui Invitational (November 22, 2005) and elected to play defense. The strategy backfired, as Michigan State’s Maurice Ager made a three-point basket at the buzzer to force overtime. (Gonzaga eventually won in triple overtime.) Was this failure to hold the lead at the end of regulation bad luck or bad strategy? Put another way, which strategy (conventional defense or intentionally fouling) maximizes the defensive team’s chances of winning the game? Drawing on the Gonzaga/Michigan State game for inspiration, this paper addresses this question and concludes that, contrary to popular belief, intentionally fouling is preferable to playing tight defense.
An Article Submitted to Journal of Quantitative Analysis in Sports, Manuscript 1030
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