Thursday, April 5, 2012

A Flaw in the Rules of Basketball?

As I often explain, sports are a great laboratory for research. This post describes a possible "flaw" in the sport of college basketball. By "flaw" I mean a contingency in the on-court play that is not covered by the rules or leads to an impossible result. In the broader society we see such contingencies arise all the time, as reality has no qualms about coming up with circumstances that are not covered (well) by laws and regulations That is of course one reason why there is a judicial system.

The "flaw" in the rules of college basketball is described by Bob Walsh, the blogging and Tweeting head basketball coach at Rhode Island College:
I'm a strong believer in fouling when up by 3 late in a game so your opponent can't get a 3 off. The great Dave Gavitt always gave me the best reasoning for this - if you foul, in order for you to lose the game, they have to do 4 things right: they have to make the first free throw, they have to miss the second free throw, they have to get the rebound, and they have to score. I've always felt that was a lot less likely to happen than them hitting a 3 to tie, even a tough, contested 3.

So you put your opponent in a situation where they have to miss a free throw to beat you. And after getting frustrated in practice with our inability to miss free throws to work on block outs, it made me think - why would you let your opponent miss a free throw when he needs to? If you violate the lane, they can't miss the free throw. Every time they miss, the whistle will blow and they will get another shot. Until they make it, which is bound to happen by mistake (thinking back to how often it happens in practice).
In other words, if a defensive player steps into the lane before the free throw shooter releases the ball, then under the rules the referee must give the shooter another opportunity if they miss the free throw. If the player is trying to miss the free throw on purpose, then this could go on forever or until the player (accidentally) makes the shot.

Walsh has actually used this strategy (at his post on the subject he links to a game video), and describes the reaction that he has received from referees:
Before we put the intentional violation in our time and score package I did ask a number of different officials what they would do in an intentional violation situation. Everyone of them said they had never heard of it or seen it before and had to think about it before answering. Some of them said they really didn't know what they would do. Others did say they would have to call a technical foul for delay of game. I asked them if they would just call it, or if they would warn me first, and everyone of them said they would warn me first. So a technical foul is eventually a possibility, but they certainly would come to you first and ask you to stop the violating before calling it.
But wait:
Interestingly I have talked with some Big East and other high level officials after that game, and a lot of them said the technical foul was not the right call. In fact, the actual official who did the game and said he was going to assess a technical was at a Big East camp that summer, and one of the supervisors told him it was the wrong call. He said you can't assess a technical there, the rule is clear it's another free throw attempt. So it is still clear that officials are not sure how to handle it as I get many different answers.
What this tells us is that even in a highly structured and rule-based game, contingencies can arise that are not well-covered by the rules. Sometimes, these contingencies arise because of changing technologies (like instant relay which led the NFL to define what a "catch" means) and sometimes because a clever coach has come up with an innovative strategy.

In both cases we learn that rules are organic and subject to revision based on the lessons of experience.

1 comment:

  1. While yes, "the rule is clear" -- a violation begets another free throw attempt -- in my opinion that explanation misses the point, which is in essence the basketball equivalent of persistent infringement. Another section of the NCAA rule book deals with this (abbreviated for clarity):

    Rule 4.17
    Art. 1. A delay is any action that impedes the progress or continuity of the game. Such actions include, but are not limited to:
    (d) Repeatedly delaying the game by preventing the ball from being promptly
    put into play...
    Art. 2. One team warning shall be given ... Thereafter, a technical foul shall be assessed for the delay...

    Of course "repeatedly" is the organic part here, but this very matter is already addressed. It's not a new strategy.