David Adam

To foul or not to foul? Teams should do their 'research'

By Herald-Whig
Posted: Jan. 12, 2019 12:01 am Updated: Jan. 12, 2019 7:32 am

The Quincy Notre Dame boys basketball team was ahead by three points with 12.2 seconds to play during a semifinal game last month at the State Farm Holiday Classic, but Aurora Christian had the ball at halfcourt coming out of a timeout.

Just before the ball was inbounded, Raiders coach Kevin Meyer quietly made a hand signal to two of his players to foul. However, when Aurora Christian tossed the ball into the backcourt, the Raiders dropped back, and the Eagles' Jaeshon Thomas eventually took a long 3-pointer from the left wing with about four seconds left.

Thomas' shot missed, but the Raiders knocked the ball out of bounds with one second left. Aurora Christian's Will Wolfe then got the pass on the ensuing inbounds play, and his 3-pointer from the corner bounced off the rim as the Raiders won 48-45.

Asked after the game for his team's strategy in the final seconds, Meyer said, "We were trying to run a little Coach Elbe Research 99 there."

Whoa. Research 99?

"Talk to him. He's done the research," Meyer said. "Basically, are you a foul guy or not a foul guy when it's under 10 seconds? We were going to, and we had a foul to give, but we didn't get the foul."

Two weeks later, it was time to learn about Research 99.

Mike Elbe has been the president of John Wood Community College since April 2014, but as he worked in administration for colleges in Illinois, Iowa and North Carolina, he also was a basketball coach. He spent 13 years winning 246 games as the men's coach at JWCC. Meyer was an assistant coach for Elbe for one season in 2004-05.

Elbe is undoubtedly a learned man, so as part of his studies over the years, surely he found time to do an extensive research project about whether to foul late in the game while leading. Right?

Um, not quite. But Elbe's story is better.

Elbe explained that in December 1999, when he was the head coach at the University of Dubuque, his team was playing Loras, its crosstown rival. Dubuque led by three points with three seconds left.

"I chose not to foul, and they hit a shot at the buzzer," Elbe said. "It goes overtime, and we got beat by two."

After the game, Elbe said an elderly man walked up to him. It was the only time he ever spoke with the man, and he's never seen him since. He told Elbe that since the 3-point shot had been introduced into college basketball in 1986, he had tracked 46 games with a specific situation -- leading by three points with eight seconds or less to play.

"He said that in 35 of the 46 games, teams did not foul," Elbe said. "Sixteen times, teams hit shots to force overtime. That's nearly 50 percent. Now, that man said he didn't track who went on to win or lose, but we lost that night. The other 11 games, he said the teams that fouled all won.

"When you lose a game like that, I'm not in any mood to hear what I should have or shouldn't have done, but I was wise enough to listen to this man for about two minutes. Because after thinking about it, I was like, ‘Wow, it does make sense.'"

Since that Loras-Dubuque game, Elbe said he coached 13 games that came down to the same situation -- ahead by three points with eight seconds or left to play. He ordered his teams to foul and put the opposition at the free-throw line every time, and his teams won every game.

"What I've learned is that it's almost a 100 percent chance of winning if you foul," Elbe said.

He said he's only seen one game when he stopped coaching when that strategy backfired. JWCC fouled a player late in the game, but he was in the act of shooting. He made the shot and the ensuing free throw, giving the Trail Blazers a one-point loss.

That play didn't shake Elbe's belief.

"So many teams are hesitant to foul in that situation," he said. "In my mind, winning is too difficult to come by to risk anything other than the percentages. It's a wise move. Coaches need to practice it."

So where is Elbe's research on the subject?

"I never did any," he said with a laugh. "I just took that guy's research. After that game, we just called it Research 99. The game was in 1999, and that guy did the research. So when I would verbally tell my team ‘Research 99,' that meant we were putting them at the free-throw line."

All thanks to a man Elbe met nearly 20 years ago ... and never saw again.

"For all I know, the guy made it up," Elbe said. "But it's worked ever since."