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Monday, March 19, 2007
Memo to coaches: play the percentages

By Jonah Keri
Special to Page 2

They were all philosophical afterwards.

Xavier swingman Justin Cage didn't want to dwell on Ron Lewis' game-tying 3-pointer, because he missed the free throw that would have put the game out of reach. Xavier coach Sean Miller didn't want to dissect Lewis' shot, or Greg Oden's obviously flagrant foul, or anything else. No one dared ask the most obvious, most important question: Why didn't you foul?!

When a basketball coach takes over the head job somewhere -- NBA, college, high school, preschool -- there must be some top-secret ritual, followed by the departing coach bequeathing his playbook to the new guy. Oh, there are plenty of strategic bits on how to break a press, how to run a motion offense, how to attack a 2-3 zone. But a passage on page one of this manual, underlined, bolded and in 60-point type, contains the key piece of information that defines how all coaches seem to approach a game.

NEVER TAKE A RISK THAT COULD MAKE YOU LOOK BAD.

Let's say your team's up three with six seconds left. The other team inbounds the ball, and you go to foul in the backcourt. The guy with the ball absorbs the contact, immediately launches a 75-footer, and it goes in. He steps to the line, calmly hits his free throw, and you lose on a four-point play. It could happen, right? And it would be the biggest nightmare of the coach's career, right?

This has to be how coaches think. Why else would they not make the only move that makes sense in that situation? Obviously Sean Miller had never seen a team tie a game with a three-pointer before. Or he'd just had a lobotomy in the locker room at halftime.

Or maybe it's this: The last thing a coach in any sport ever wants to do is try something unorthodox, then have it fail and make him look stupid. Miller saw the 1-in-10,000 chance that committing a foul could fail, and he let that remote possibility prevent him from making the move that works the other 9,999 times.

This is the same logic that prompts baseball managers to order a sacrifice bunt in the first inning, or a GM to acquire an expensive, known mediocrity to pollute the roster. The alternative -- letting a hitter swing away and risking an ugly strikeout, or letting a rookie come up and fall flat on his face -- is too scary for them to imagine. Never mind that one run almost never wins a baseball game, and that the rookie has a better-than-even chance to replicate Mr. Mediocre's numbers, at 1/20th the cost.

But then, just when we thought all coaches were doomed to this kind of gutless, copout move, Bruce Pearl saved the day. Up three, with six seconds left in yesterday's game against Virginia, Pearl ordered a foul on Sean Singletary, forcing the Wahoos' best three-point threat to the line. After Singletary and Tennessee's Chris Lofton exchanged free throws, Virginia got the ball back again a second later. The Vols appeared to try to foul, but Singletary's speed allowed him to blow by and get a 3-point attempt up before the buzzer. The shot rimmed out and Tennessee prevailed. A bit of good karma for that rarest of species: a coach with some balls.

Jonah Keri is a regular contributor to Page 2 and the editor and co-author of "Baseball Between the Numbers." You can reach him at jonahkeri@gmail.com.