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|
|Wichita State||2013||Final Four||167|
|Ohio State||2012||Final Four||107|
|Virginia Commonwealth||2011||Final Four||97|
|Michigan State||2010||Final Four||185|
|West Virginia||2010||Final Four||121|
|North Carolina||2008||Final Four||13|
|George Mason||2006||Final Four||249|
|Louisiana State||2006||Final Four||170|
|Michigan State||2005||Final Four||3|
|Oklahoma State||2004||Final Four||150|
|Michigan State||2001||Final Four||55|
|North Carolina||2000||Final Four||102|
|Michigan State||1999||Final Four||24|
|Ohio State||1999||Final Four||297|
|North Carolina||1998||Final Four||54|