Jim Boeheim and Tom Izzo are two of the biggest names in college basketball. Two of the most accomplished coaches ever. And they both made influential decisions down the stretch of Sunday’s NCAA tournament matchup between Syracuse and Michigan State. They both made decisions that allowed the Orange to pull off an upset.
Izzo’s coaching was questionable all afternoon. He structured his zone offense around a backup big man at the foul line, settling for perimeter ball movement and 3-pointers rather than taking full advantage of his team’s superiority down low. He played his two best bigs, Nick Ward and Jaren Jackson Jr., 16 and 15 minutes, respectively.
That’s one of the reasons the game came down to the final minute. And once it got there, Boeheim got the best of Izzo again.
After a frantic sequence of turnovers, reviews and jump balls, Michigan State had the ball, down three, with nine seconds to go. As it prepared to inbound the ball from the sideline, a contentious, unending basketball debate came into play: To foul up three, or to play it out?
Boeheim chose to foul. His players executed the strategy perfectly. And he, and they, closed out the upset.
“We’re always going to foul in those situations,” Boeheim said after the game. “And it’s always worked for us. I’ve seen too many games where a guy throws in a 3 and you go to overtime.”
First, Tyus Battle fouled Matt McQuaid with seven seconds to go. McQuaid made both free throws to cut the lead to one.
The Spartans then fouled Battle out of necessity, to extend the game, but Battle held serve, making two free throws of his own to push the Cuse lead back to three.
And thus, Boeheim had the same decision to make. Again, he chose to foul, and again, the strategy worked.
This time, the Orange fouled Cassius Winston with three seconds left. Winston made his first free throw, and handed the final move of the coaching chess match to Izzo: Instruct Winston to miss the second free throw intentionally, hoping for an offensive rebound and put-back to tie the game? Or make the free throw, go for a steal on the subsequent inbounds pass, and foul again if you don’t get it?
Izzo chose the latter. He probably shouldn’t have.
He had a massive size and strength advantage down low. He had a frontcourt that had pulled down 29 – TWENTY-NINE – offensive rebounds in the game. He had Ward, statistically the most dominant offensive rebounder in the entire country.
But he kept Ward on the bench. Winston made the free throw. Syracuse got the ball in. Michigan State fouled again, this time with a little over two seconds remaining. Syracuse’s Paschal Chukwu made the first free throw, missed the second, and the Spartans couldn’t even get a potential game-winning buzzer-beater off in time. Their season was over.
Boeheim got the end-game sequence spot-on. He effectively took the game out of Michigan State’s hands. The Spartans didn’t hit a game-tying 3-pointer because Syracuse never gave them the chance to.
There are three main arguments against fouling up three. First of all, you run the risk of committing a foul while an opponent goes into a shooting motion – a mistake that would give that opponent three free throws to tie the game. Second, you extend the game. And that’s where Boeheim’s first decision was questionable. He needed Battle to make both of his free throws with just under seven seconds to play to be vindicated. Fortunately for the legendary coach, his player did.
And third, a foul leaves a team susceptible to that game-tying put-back mentioned above. But Boeheim got fortunate there as well. Izzo opted not to chase it.
In other words, one Hall of Famer chose right. Another Hall of Famer chose wrong. The former is moving on to the Sweet 16, and the latter is going home.
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