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To foul or not to foul? ESPN's coaches break it down

Should teams always foul when they're up a possession with seconds left in the game? Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Your team is in a tight game with a big-time rival and up by just one possession. There are 10 seconds left on the game clock -- a blink of an eye in real life, an eternity in college basketball. Every choice in those next 10 seconds is vital, and is the difference between a win or a loss.

And you, in the stands, or on your couch, shouting a few things, depending on your late-game philosophy:

"Foul him!"

Or ...

"Defense!"

Oh, those nerve-wracking final seconds. They're when a coach's ego and philosophy come out; when we see if the team has practiced and is confident enough to execute its late-game doctrine.

"This is the time of year where coaches must really sharpen their special-situation plays," coach Fran Fraschilla said, "because at the end of a conference race, in the conference tournament, or in the NCAA tournament, one seemingly minor play could make the difference in your season."

"Most guys develop a philosophy that fits their personnel and the competition they play and practice it and live with it," coach Seth Greenberg said.

Coach Dan Dakich pointed to a fouling trend: "The sport's trending where teams foul more, because more teams shoot the ball better from more spots. More stretch-4s, stretch-5s. It used to be just guarding one or two guys close, and you take your chances with a guy who's maybe a 20, 25 percent 3-point shooter. Every game is different, and it depends on how much you practice, but I think more teams are fouling simply because more guys can shoot it better."

We turned to our coaches to give us a breakdown of their own coaching philosophies.


You're up three with about 10 seconds left in the game. Do you foul sometimes, always or never?

Fran Fraschilla: "My philosophy has evolved through the years -- mainly because of my role as a TV analyst here at ESPN, having watched so many games, and so many of those situations. When I was a young coach, I wanted my team to be smart and tough, and so we were not going to foul up three, but instead have that 'macho' approach and say: 'They're not hitting a 3 on our defense.' But as I've seen situations and recognize that the analytics may lend themselves to fouling being the smart play, I've adjusted my thought process.

I'd foul with five seconds or less because if you foul earlier, you give the other team a chance to foul you again, and gain an extra possession. So if you foul with 11 seconds to go, they make their free throws, and they foul you with eight seconds, we're right back in the same situation. So we're fouling five seconds or less. Either way is never 100 percent the right way. Whatever you decide: practice -- and this is the time of year to sharpen it."

Dan Dakich: "In my world, I never really fouled: I wanted to play defense. That's changed -- I'd foul now. If there are eight seconds left, I'd make sure they dribble a few times, then with five seconds -- always five seconds -- I'd foul.

It happened that one time it cost us not going to the NCAA tournament. We'd won the MAC. We were up by three, playing Miami (Ohio); there was 16 seconds to go, and my thought was: 'All right. Too much time. We hadn't practiced it with that much time.' I had a pretty good defensive team, so we played great defense -- then Miami attempted a 2 with about six seconds to go. I thought, 'That's great!' But I'll never forget it -- my point guard didn't block out the guy who shot it, who then got it back, threw it to a kid standing somewhere between the top of the key and half court and he drilled a 3. It ended up going to overtime, and they beat us. At that time, I said I wouldn't foul, but after watching it and seeing so many teams come back, I think I would foul now."

Seth Greenberg: "When you're up three, you want to defend the full court, turn the ball handler, support with the inbounder, and any time you just count a second to dribble, so basically once you get under five seconds, I'm comfortable giving a foul. You must practice it, because if you don't, guys are so good at playing through the contact that it becomes a factor. But there is so much more that comes into it: if you're not a good free throw block-out team, if you're undersized -- let's say you're playing North Carolina. They're very good at back-tapping a missed free throw and getting an extra possession.

I lost a game to Tyler Hansbrough in the ACC tournament in a free throw situation. This wasn't the exact scenario, but there, we were up by one -- they missed a free throw, they back-tapped, and Hansbrough got the ball and scored on a jumper -- started running around like a gecko. The size of your frontcourt matters.

We lost a very tough game to Tulane with a chance to win a half of the C-USA championship when I was at South Florida on a half-court 3; and that famous shot obviously to Duke that lost us a game, that was the chance to give the foul. All decisions you make in a split-second. Hopefully you've practiced them."