It is not easy to pull off upsets in the NCAA tournament. Despite claims that there is more parity in college basketball this season, the first two rounds of this season’s tournament did not provide any more upsets than last year. (The average seed of the remaining 16 teams is exactly the same as last year.) However, there was perhaps one less upset than there could have been because one coach turned down a terrific opportunity to tilt the playing field in his team’s favor.
After San Diego State’s Malcolm Thomas converted a three-point play with two minutes left in overtime, Temple had the basketball with the score tied 61-61. In any upset bid, a team needs some things to go its way, and the following sequence would be extremely beneficial to the Owls’ chances of winning. Temple would work the clock until a questionable foul was called on the Aztecs’ Kawhi Leonard with six seconds left on the shot clock and the Owls in no position to get off a decent shot.
Amazingly, the Owls were not yet in the bonus, and so the foul didn’t result in foul shots, but a shot-clock reset for Temple with 1:33 left. Again, Temple would work the clock, taking a shot with 1:08 left. The shot missed and two San Diego State players had the best opportunity to secure the rebound. Neither was aware of the other’s presence however, and the resulting effort caused the ball to go out of bounds. Temple would get yet another new shot clock.
In a game of blackjack, you can make money as a player, but you need some breaks. It helps if the dealer busts more than usual. It’s nice if you get a bunch of face cards. Fran Dunphy had been the player for 44 minutes against the dealer, second-seeded, undefeated-against-everybody-but-BYU San Diego State, and he had done pretty well. Anybody that can sit at a blackjack table for two hours and break even has been a bit fortunate. But now Dunphy had the opportunity to be the dealer. The shot clock is 35 seconds. There were 66 seconds remaining. If Temple could get a shot off in about 15 seconds, they would force San Diego State to take a shot with enough time left for Temple to get another possession with plenty of time left on the clock.
In fairness, the Aztecs could have rebounded their own missed shot and not given Temple the opportunity for a final possession, but the odds against that happening are significantly in Temple’s favor. Besides, it’s not like Temple would have had to operate outside its comfort zone to get a shot off in 15 seconds. The Owls’ average possession time on the season was 16 seconds. And this possession would have started in the frontcourt, so Temple could have run a called play immediately after the throw-in. Fran Dunphy could have called a timeout, drawn up a play and become the dealer. But he didn’t.
Not only did the Owls not attempt to score quickly, they milked the clock again. Ultimately, they would wait and begin to run a play with about ten seconds to shoot, limiting their chance to get a good shot. If they were planning to run a ten-second play, it clearly made more sense to do so at the beginning of the shot clock than at the end. Temple would miss a shot, and San Diego State would do the same, and so the game went to double overtime where the Aztecs pulled out the victory. It’s not that Dunphy’s decision cost Temple the game. We can’t say that any more than we can guarantee the dealer will win his next hand of blackjack. But those kinds of less-than-optimal decisions reduced the chance of an upset.
It was interesting that only a few minutes after the conclusion of this game that a similar opportunity would present itself to Brad Stevens, the head coach of Butler, who was trailing top-seeded Pitt by one point late in the game. Stevens is the patron saint of analytical coaches, so when Butler gained possession of the basketball with 1:03 remaining it was not surprising that Stevens accepted the opportunity to be the dealer.
After calling timeout, Stevens drew up a play for his team that would take only a few seconds. As in the Temple game, Butler and Pitt would trade empty possessions at this point. However, because Butler’s play used so little time, the Bulldogs got the ball back with nine seconds left after Pitt’s missed shot. It was the bonus possession that Temple should have had at the end of overtime. Butler converted their opportunity and would go onto win the game (but not before some unusual end-game drama you may have heard about).
Underdogs work all game for the opportunities that were presented to Temple and Butler on Saturday. One coach took advantage of the chance to be dealer, and the other didn’t. Just like at the blackjack table, the dealer usually wins. It’s a shame Temple’s players were not given an opportunity they, like Butler’s players, had worked all game to deserve.