There was a lot of great basketball yesterday, but I want to talk quickly about one small thing at the end of the Kentucky-Princeton game, that I think is kind of the basketball equivalent of the oft-debated punt on fourth-and-short in the opponents’ end in football. That is, it’s the wrong play, but also the play that is dictated by conventional wisdom, so even people who ought to know better slip up.
The situation was this: Princeton scored to tie the game with 37 second left. Kentucky couldn’t quite hold for the last shot, so the Tigers were guaranteed a last possession with 2 seconds to play. Kentucky ran the ball all the way down, then their point guard, Brandon Knight, made a spectacular scoop shot from the left baseline. The ball dropped through the net with almost exactly two seconds left. A Princeton player grabbed it, and threw it inbounds almost to half-court… but the coach had called a timeout.
And that’s the mistake. Calling the TO there, I thought, actually hurt Princeton rather than helping them.
Why do I say that? Because Kentucky was taller and quicker at basically every position. So, on the ensuing out-of-bounds play under the basket, they were able to put a big guy in front of the inbounder, and set up their defense to closely guard whoever might get the ball. This meant that Princeton ended up throwing it into a guy in a bad spot, and never got a chance at a good shot.
Had they just gone with the ball without calling a timeout, I think they would’ve had a better shot to win. Not a great chance, by any stretch– there was too little time left– but the Kentucky players were disorganized and celebrating, and a quick push up the court could easily have gotten them an open look at a long three-pointer. Which would’ve been better than what they really got.
This is a tricky point, because as I said above, the conventional wisdom is that the coach should call a TO there. To “set up a play” for the last shot, as if this is something that needs a great deal of on-the-spot improvisation. If you’ve practiced this sort of situation, though, there’s nothing you’ll be able to tell your team as a coach that they haven’t heard before. And whatever benefit you gain by drawing up a final play is often negated by giving the defense a chance to set up themselves. If you go without the TO, you’re more likely to catch them off-guard, and that can often produce better results than you get coming out of the time-out.
You don’t get to be a Div. 1 coach without being a little bit of a control freak, though, so the automatic impulse of any coach is going to be to call the time-out. In many cases, though, particularly when you’re undersized the way Princeton was, it’s the wrong play.