Meyers Leonard didn't foul in the last four seconds at Minnesota on Saturday night.
It wasn't even close. He stood in front of the bottom arc with arms raised and actually retreated as Austin Hollins drove in for the tying three-point play. Leonard initiated no contact whatsoever. The most prejudiced Gopher fan would agree on viewing the replay. The refs, too. It was a phantom call, pure and simple. It put Hollins on the free throw line, a violation of the officiating rule that you don't call what you don't see. Leonard couldn't have been seen making a foul because he didn't.
That's not the point. Repeat, this is not a complaint about a missed call. Refs blow them all the time. No human can officiate basketball. Most of these block-charge rulings are just glorified guesses.
Here's my point: A player, in this case Leonard, can't give the official that choice. For example, if you can't catch former Illini and current New York Giant Steve Weatherford's punt on the fly, you should flee the area. You don't stand around and let it carom off your knee and thereby lose an important playoff game. Similarly, if you see Hollins coming and a two-point basket doesn't matter, get completely out of the way.
Hollins would have preferred to launch a three-pointer, but couldn't. So he had only one intention when he invaded from the arc, and that was to draw contact. Any kind of contact. He sought it out. It's a desperate situation, so his only hope was to throw it back to the zebras.
Here's what we know. If you place a life-size statue of the Venus de Milo in the lane and you let dribblers attack from all angles, she'd soon foul out. There she is, without arms and unmoving, and she'd foul out. We should know that by now. That's the way the game is officiated, almost always siding with the offensive players. Drive on in, bump Venus and go to the line. Illini Brandon Paul takes advantage of that tactic, particularly in the late stages of close games.
There is an alternative. It is one that has been debated for 25 years. And that is to protect the three-point lead by fouling early, turning a one-possession game into a two-possession situation.
Illinois State assistant Rob Judson, in a recent conversation, said the foul should come inside of seven seconds. Lou Henson agrees. Back at New Mexico State, Henson's Aggies won a game after the opponent sank threes to tie at the end of regulation and the first overtime.
Henson became so frustrated that, carrying a two-point lead in the second overtime, he shocked his players in a timeout when he ordered the fouling of a 50-50 free throw shooter to avoid losing to a trey. The player missed the second free throw and the Aggies won by one.
On second thought
Since I'm so sensitive to this situation, and have been debating it for decades, I'm probably aware of 100 occasions in which games have been tied with a late three. In one case, Kansas won an NCAA championship after Mario Chalmers tied Memphis at :02 in regulation, even as John Calipari was calling for his team to foul. It happens all the time. Threes seem easier when it's a three-point game. And in all these years I've only heard about one game where the fouling strategy backfired in the closing seconds.
This said, I don't blame Illini coach Bruce Weber. He follows the same philosophy as nearly all major coaches. They don't believe in fouling with a three-point lead. These experts must see favoring odds for them not to. Or maybe they figure they'll get hammered if the strategy somehow backfired.
So I can only assume that there is something I don't understand, and I must accept their strategy because they're smarter, younger and more deeply engaged in basketball strategy than I am. They study the game. They're making anywhere from $750,000 (Chris Lowery at SIU) to 10 times that amount (Rick Pitino at Louisville), while I'm plugging along at a tiny fraction for writing these four columns per week.
Mine is a minority opinion. My thinking is viewed as way down on the totem pole. But I remain convinced. Look how many times it comes up. Practically every Illini basketball game, men and women, comes down to last-minute and last-second decisions.
Here's my promise. I'll never criticize the coach who directs players to foul the dribbler under :07. I'm convinced that is the odds-favoring move. If Paul had fouled Hollins on the drive Saturday — as a clock-situation policy ingrained from his freshman year — it wouldn't have guaranteed a win, but it's my thinking that the odds would have been overwhelmingly in the UI's favor. Or we can agree to disagree.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.