Revisiting Kansas St.-Xavier thriller through a fascinating new prism
My most nagging regret from this past NCAA tournament: Never writing about Kansas State-Xavier, the widely agreed-upon Game of the Year. Especially since I was in the building for said epic, covering the West Regional. The problem was that I covered a different game.
SI sent two writers -- me and
You know what happened: the drama of two overtimes, 13 ties, 17 lead changes, 197 points scored and a 101-96 win by the Wildcats. I watched the early parts from the press room on TV (while trying to write), and then saw all the defining sequences courtside. Elements of it reminded me of being at the Syracuse-UConn six-OT thriller the previous March -- the absurd shot-making, the audible gasping from the crowd, and especially, the suspension of jadedness in press row. That does not often occur.
I used a ticket stub from that Sweet 16 doubleheader as a bookmark for the next few months. It kept the game on my mind to the extent that when, in late May, efficiency stats guru
Some important explainer-info, before we proceed: Kenpom's Win Probability figures are based on time-and-score data from thousands of college hoops games in his database. Games don't begin with even odds; because Kansas State was the more efficient team, it theoretically opened with a 56.9 percent chance of beating Xavier. All possessions aren't created equal, either: The charts are color-coded to show the varying stakes of each possession; the highest-leverage possessions, shown in yellow, have potential to create at least a 10 percent swing in Win Probability. As Pomeroy wrote of his leverage ratings, "You can think of [them] as a proxy for the watchability of a game at that point."
Kansas State-Xavier was eminently watchable. Of its 50 minutes of game-time, 15:04 was high-leverage -- a figure that blows away any other NCAA tournament game.
The Kansas State-Xavier chart is far more volatile than that of the title game, almost giving off the appearance of a
The game got interesting once it passed the nine-minute mark of the second half.
Over the course of the next 12 possessions, Xavier brought the Win Probability back down to even (at 50 percent), tying the game at 67-67 with under a minute to play and setting up a stunning sequence of events.Earlier this summer, when I talked to Kansas State coach
Martin has to enjoy the first part, which went right: The Wildcats got the ball back with 47 seconds left, and instead of gunning for a two-for-one opportunity on the 35-second shot clock, they patiently ran a pick-and-roll at the top of the key with their two best shooters, guards
The ensuing possession is palatable for Martin, too: He frantically ordered his team not to foul, because there was too much time left on the clock. Although Xavier hit a quick two-pointer (on a
Xavier was forced to foul, Pullen hit both free throws to make it 72-69 with 9.7 seconds left. K-State's Win Probability was 85 percent. And this is where disaster struck for the Wildcats, after Martin gave instructions to foul. "Every time, everywhere I've been, we've always fouled in that situation," he said. "It's just what I believe in."
Clemente dutifully tried to foul Holloway shortly after he dribbled past halfcourt. But ... Clemente didn't foul hard enough to guarantee a whistle, and the refs remained silent. That caused Wildcats guard
Holloway, an 84.6 percent free-throw shooter, nailed all three attempts, tying the game and reducing K-State's Win Probability from 85 percent to 56. The Wildcats, who watched Pullen's buzzer-beater go off the rim, were temporarily shell-shocked heading into overtime, but Martin is still adamant that he made the best tactical decision. "If I'm in that [situation] next time," he said, "I'm fouling again."
And you know what? He's right. The odds are overwhelmingly on his side.
Let's say that a smart team up three in that situation -- and Martin said his team had rehearsed this scores of times -- commits the shooting-foul blunder on 1 in 8 occasions. Even if that happens, a jittery 18-22-year-old will still be forced to hit three consecutive free throws to tie the game. The odds of even an 85 percent free-throw shooter making three in a row are 61 percent. So we're talking about 1/8 odds of putting the guy on the line, and then only 6/10 odds, at best, that he ties the game -- which means there's only a 7.5 percent chance of that doomsday scenario. Would you rather take that risk, or let a 35-40 percent three-point shooter attempt a long-range shot while you're being careful
Here's the statistical picture of what happens when a team up three correctly executes a non-shooting foul in the waning seconds of a bonus situation:
A 70-85 percent free-throw shooter needs to make his first attempt in a high-pressure situation. Then the odds turn against him. To create a long rebound on shot two, he needs to miss artfully -- a skill that's rarely practiced because it's rarely required in games. How often can a player throw up that perfect brick? One in five times? One in 10?
His teammates then need to get an offensive rebound, and this is when they're at an even bigger disadvantage. Teams, on average, only grabbed 32.7 percent of available offensive boards in 2009-10 -- under
Let's generously assign the odds of getting that offensive board at 30 percent. After that, the team would still need to make a two (a 47 percent shot, on average) to tie, or a three (a 34 percent shot) to win.
The odds of that tie sequence playing out are around 2 percent, and odds of a different tie sequence (with an unintentionally missed first free throw, an offensive rebound, and a three) are also around 2 percent. That's a rough total of 4 percent, which, combined with the odds of the aforementioned K-State three-shot-foul doomsday scenario (7.5 percent), only totals 11.5 percent.
So, in summation: If you chose to foul in this situation -- and you do it the right way
The end of the first overtime of K-State-Xavier was as thrilling as the end of regulation -- mostly because the Wildcats had another three-point lead (at 87-84) and didn't foul. This wasn't an egregious mistake, though: Xavier's final possession began with 18.1 seconds left, which was too early to commit a foul, and the Musketeers were in shooting range by the time a foul would've been appropriate. That last possession didn't come off of a stoppage, either, and Martin didn't want to risk yelling in fouling instructions from the opposite bench, for fear of them being processed too late. Crawford, a 39.1 percent three-point shooter, was allowed to launch an NBA-length trey. It went through the net, sent Gus Johnson into an enhanced state of mania, and sent the game to another overtime.
All but the last three possessions of the second overtime were considered high-leverage, but Xavier's gunners failed to make anther three. Thus there were no more heroics and no more dilemmas. With five seconds left, Clemente iced the game with two free throws that sent K-State's Win Probability into the 90th percentile. The score was 101-96, the same way it would end, going into the annals as the 2010 NCAA tournament's high-leverage masterpiece. "There were two teams that day," Martin said, "that just refused to end their seasons." Crawford logged on to his Twitter that night and told Xavier fans to be proud. "Stand up!!" he wrote, before describing the Musketeers' exit in a way no Win Probability graph could. We "went out," he said, "like Gs."