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Is a timeout to set up a play in a tie game advantageous or not?

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

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Maybe the most memorable aspect of Korie Lucious' buzzer-beating three-pointer to beat Maryland in the second round of last year's NCAA tournament was the image of Tom Izzo nearly calling timeout seconds before the shot.

Izzo clearly was having the same internal debate coaches frequently have entering these final-possession scenarios: Is it better to try to catch the defense on its heels or call timeout to set up a play?

John Ezekowitz of the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective analyzed that exact question after watching Izzo during the Maryland game, separately assessing a team's odds of tying or winning after a timeout while tied or trailing by one, two or three points. What he found in his study of games that were tied last season was that it was not advantageous for coaches to call timeout to set up a play to win the game on the final possession.

In the case of teams with the ball when the score is tied, the data clearly show that it is more effective not to call timeout. In my 2009-2010 dataset, 452 teams fit the above criteria. 235 of those teams called timeout, 217 did not. Of the teams that called timeout, only 35.7 percent scored on the subsequent possession. Teams that did not call timeout scored 53.0 percent of the time. A simple two sample t-test with unequal variances shows that this difference is strongly statistically significant (p=0.0002). A logistic regression with timeouts as the independent variable and whether the team scored as the dependent variable showed that calling a timeout was a significant predictor of successfully scoring (p<0.001) and that teams that did not call timeout were twice as likely to score as teams that did.

Although Ezekowitz will release the results of his findings at a later date for when a team is trailing by one, two or three points, it's probably a good bet that the outcome will be similar. And like Ezekowitz's study of whether or not teams should foul when leading by three points, these results make sense intuitively when you consider that a savvy point guard has a far better chance to make a play against a defense that's ill-prepared.

The one quibble one could make with Ezekowitz's study is that it doesn't take into account how much time is left on the clock in a late-game situation. A timeout to set up a final play seems as though it would be far more advantageous if there are three or less seconds left on the clock and the offensive team still hasn't crossed mid-court.

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