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UConn’s Not-So-Secret Weapon

FiveThirtyEight’s model calls Monday night’s NCAA men’s basketball championship game between Kentucky and Connecticut a tossup. If it’s as close as each team’s win probabilities are, the game will probably come down to free throws. If it does, advantage, UConn.

The Huskies have hit 77.4 percent of their free throws this season, good for fifth out of the 351 teams in Division I. That’s the highest free-throw percentage ranking for a Final Four team since Michigan State ranked third in the nation in 2005. And if UConn shoots well at the line and beats Kentucky, the Huskies will have the highest free-throw percentage ranking of any champion since before the 1998 Final Four, the earliest for which stats are available. Kentucky is hitting 68.4 percent of its free throws, just 228th overall.

Hitting lots of free throws is, not surprisingly, helpful for winning college basketball games, and in Storrs, Conn., free-throw shooting has become a key part of success. During the 2010-2011 season, current UConn associate coach Glen Miller found and shared a video of Steve Nash shooting from the free-throw line (Nash is a career 90.4 percent shooter in the NBA). That year, the Jim Calhoun-coached Huskies won the championship while finishing 11th nationally in free-throw shooting. UConn hit 82 percent of its free throws in the tournament. It was a big improvement from the Huskies’ No. 312 ranking the prior time they won the title under Calhoun, in 2004. (That was the lowest ranking in free-throw accuracy for a champion on record.)

Last season, its first under coach Kevin Ollie, UConn ranked 31st. During his four years as a Husky in the 1990s, Ollie improved his accuracy from the line, going from 71.8 percent his freshman year to 80.6 percent in his senior year. And under Ollie, UConn has improved, too. All three players to shoot at least 80 free throws last year and this year for UConn have a higher percentage this season.

Even if you don’t appreciate the aesthetic value of Shabazz Napier’s free-throw shooting as much our Grantland colleague Louisa Thomas does, you should appreciate its value to the Huskies. Napier has hit 86.9 percent of his free throws this season, up from 81.9 percent last year. He’s also taken 64 percent more foul shots. He’s been even better in the tournament, missing just twice on 31 tries.

To approximate the importance of free-throw accuracy for the Huskies’ success, I checked a few simple what-if scenarios. If they’d shot free throws in each game this season at the rate they shot last year (74.3 percent), or the national average rate this season (69.8 percent), the Huskies would have lost two more games during the season and been forced into overtime in a third. A loss in that overtime game could have jeopardized their tournament berth.

At the national average rate, UConn would have hit just 15 of 22 free throws in both its Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight games — instead of hitting 20 and 21, respectively. Both games would have gone into overtime, which would have jeopardized  its Final Four berth. And if the Huskies had shot in each game at the same rate as their opponent in that game, they would have lost their Sweet Sixteen game against Iowa State.

Of course, these are overly simplified scenarios; games probably wouldn’t have played out exactly the same way with different free-throw results. But that could cut both ways: Perhaps a team of Huskies who were weaker from the line would have done even worse because they wouldn’t have gotten to shoot the back end of one-and-ones, or because opponents would have fouled them more often and prevented more field goals. Then again, the record of recent Final Fours shows plenty of teams can succeed while laying lots of bricks from the free-throw line. One conclusion is clear: UConn almost certainly wouldn’t have gotten this far without Napier’s deadeye accuracy with the clock stopped, or without that Steve Nash video.

Final Four Team Year Finish FT% rank
Connecticut 2014 TBD 5
Kentucky 2014 TBD 228
Florida 2014 Final Four 275
Wisconsin 2014 Final Four 26
Louisville 2013 Champion 118
Michigan 2013 Final 158
Syracuse 2013 Final Four 235
Wichita State 2013 Final Four 167
Kentucky 2012 Champion 63
Kansas 2012 Final 169
Louisville 2012 Final Four 191
Ohio State 2012 Final Four 107
Connecticut 2011 Champion 11
Butler 2011 Final 69
Kentucky 2011 Final Four 108
Virginia Commonwealth 2011 Final Four 97
Duke 2010 Champion 8
Butler 2010 Final 27
Michigan State 2010 Final Four 185
West Virginia 2010 Final Four 121
North Carolina 2009 Champion 18
Michigan State 2009 Final 138
Connecticut 2009 Final Four 207
Villanova 2009 Final Four 17
Kansas 2008 Champion 131
Memphis 2008 Final 318
North Carolina 2008 Final Four 13
UCLA 2008 Final Four 55
Florida 2007 Champion 168
Ohio State 2007 Final 134
Georgetown 2007 Final Four 105
UCLA 2007 Final Four 252
Florida 2006 Champion 33
UCLA 2006 Final 168
George Mason 2006 Final Four 249
Louisiana State 2006 Final Four 170
North Carolina 2005 Champion 53
Illinois 2005 Final 45
Louisville 2005 Final Four 62
Michigan State 2005 Final Four 3
Connecticut 2004 Champion 312
Georgia Tech 2004 Final 157
Duke 2004 Final Four 26
Oklahoma State 2004 Final Four 150
Syracuse 2003 Champion 163
Kansas 2003 Final 276
Marquette 2003 Final Four 6
Texas 2003 Final Four 79
Maryland 2002 Champion 56
Indiana 2002 Final 135
Kansas 2002 Final Four 71
Oklahoma 2002 Final Four 7
Duke 2001 Champion 127
Arizona 2001 Final 17
Maryland 2001 Final Four 128
Michigan State 2001 Final Four 55
Michigan State 2000 Champion 28
Florida 2000 Final 64
North Carolina 2000 Final Four 102
Wisconsin 2000 Final Four 169
Connecticut 1999 Champion 26
Duke 1999 Final 76
Michigan State 1999 Final Four 24
Ohio State 1999 Final Four 297
Kentucky 1998 Champion 148
Utah 1998 Final 28
North Carolina 1998 Final Four 54
Stanford 1998 Final Four 14

Carl Bialik was FiveThirtyEight’s lead writer for news.