North Carolina senior guard Marcus Paige’s game-tying shot seemed like destiny or a prayer answered. As the ball descended from its arc, rattled inside the rim and fell through the net with the grace of a feather, it was one of the greatest and most memorable basketball shots — college or pro — that the sport has seen. Then Villanova junior forward Kris Jenkins happened.
Jenkins’ three at the buzzer countered Paige’s shot and propelled Villanova to its first national title in 35 years on Monday. It was a classic finish to an already stellar game, and for those of us who were not yet alive when former Duke center/power forward Christian Laettner’s turnaround jumper sank Kentucky in the 1992 Elite 8, or when former forward Lorenzo Charles turned an airball into a game-winning dunk to inch the Cinderella North Carolina State team over the University of Houston’s Phi Slamma Jamma in 1983, Monday’s game was surely the greatest college basketball game my generation has seen.
The now-legendary ending, however, should not have happened. Though hindsight is always 20/20, Villanova Head Coach Jay Wright should have planned to foul North Carolina point guard Joel Berry II as he was dribbling up the court before he passed to Paige, or Paige himself after he got the pass from Berry — before Paige took the miraculous heave of a three that inexplicably went in. Consider the situation: Villanova was up by three with less than 10 seconds left, and North Carolina was in the double bonus, meaning that a Villanova foul would give two Carolina free throws and essentially guarantee Villanova another possession with the lead. To Wright’s credit, Berry and Paige are capable free-throw shooters; Berry made 86.7 percent of his free throws this season and Paige made 77.4 percent, so not wanting to foul two quality shooters is understandable. Basic probability says that Berry would make both shots 75 percent of the time while Paige would hit both just a tick under 60 percent of the time.
Even if North Carolina had hit both foul shots, leaving Villanova with a one-point lead, online basketball probability win indicators calculate that a team up one point with five seconds left and possession of the ball has an 89.3 percent chance of winning the game. If the game is tied, that probability is 59.3 percent. But saying Wright’s choice not to foul decreased his team’s win probability by 30 percent also is not quite accurate because trailing by a point, North Carolina certainly would have fouled to put Villanova at the line. The Wildcats are an excellent free throw-shooting team, and the player with the worst percentage from the stripe — senior forward Daniel Ochefu — probably would have inbounded the ball. At that point, the worst shooter for Villanova on the floor would have been junior guard Josh Hart, and he makes 75 percent of his free throws.
Villanova also had a timeout to use, which they subsequently did after Paige’s three-pointer, to draw up the screen play that gave senior guard Ryan Arcidiacono the shoot-pass option that led to Jenkins’ game-winner. Villanova prides itself on being a team with one of the highest basketball IQs in the country. It is very reasonable to assume that the Wildcats would have found a way to inbound the ball and defend against the trap. Based on the Ochefu screenplay Wright was able to draw up, it is also reasonable to assume he would have found a way to avoid trouble on the inbound and force North Carolina to foul.
In addition to running a bit more time off the clock, Villanova would have had a chance to boost its lead back up and force North Carolina to use its final timeout. Because timeouts do not advance the ball up-court in college basketball, North Carolina would have had to cover the length of the floor in a few seconds for a decent look or settle for an extremely unlikely heave from half-court or beyond. Trading foul shots also would have given Villanova the opportunity to foul again, and at that point, with another cycle of fouls having to ensue without timeouts left, North Carolina simply would have run out of time, and Villanova would have prevailed.
Regardless of what Wright should have done, he was able to draw up a phenomenal play to give his team an opportunity to win a classic, and college basketball and our collective sports consciousness will be forever grateful for what he did not do.