In College Basketball, You Gotta Make Your Free Throws, Right?

By Ryan Darcy
Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

There should have been a court-storming at the Littlejohn Coliseum but thanks to some missed free throws down the stretch by the Clemson Tigers, ACC leader Miami (FL) escaped with a narrow 45-43 win. It’s a known fact that Clemson generally struggles hitting their free throws, and tonight was no different. In fact, they were downright terrible tonight–5-for-13 (38.5%) to be exact.

Immediately following the misses, the announcers stated that in order to win games, you have to hit your free throws. The Twitter-sphere also blew up with millions of experts (read: fans) preaching about free throws.

But does making your free throws necessarily translate into wins? Down the stretch in a tight game, it sure helps being confident in your teams ability to make free throws but a high free throw percentage doesn’t always equal success. Follow along.

Miami (FL) is one of the worst free throw shooting teams in Division I, making only 65.8 percent of their attempts, yet they somehow managed to sneak out a two-point win by making 6-of-7 free throws tonight. It defies logic, but Miami just walked out of Littlejohn with a 21-3 record.

The South Dakota Coyotes over in the Summit League, meanwhile, hit on 77.4% of their free throws (2nd in Division I) and are mired in a dreadful 8-18 season. In a recent loss to the Oakland Grizzlies, the Coyotes shot 50% from the floor and connected on 11-13 free throws while Oakland made only 7-13 from the line yet won by a point. Again, it defies logic. Or maybe it was the 0 the put up in the offensive rebound column.

So making a high percentage doesn’t really mean a thing. Maybe making a lot of free throws translates to wins.

Take the Richmond Spiders. They’re 18th in Division I with 434 free throws made (out of XXX), yet they’re only 15-11 and 5-6 in the A-10. And they make 72.8%, good for 54th in the nation. In a recent 83-80 overtime win over St. Bonaventure, they connected on seven straight free throw attempts in the final 24 seconds to close out the win but still missed 10 in the game. Down the stretch, though, they made them.

Then you take a team like the Indiana Hoosiers, the No. 1 team in all the land who just so happens to shoot (and make) the most free throws of any team in college basketball. Not sure if we can count the Hoosiers when trying to validate this free throw argument, since they also have one of the best defenses in the country.

So Richmond proves that making free throws by the truckload doesn’t necessarily mean wins will follow. What about free throw point distribution, or the total percentage of points a team scores from the stripe, maybe that’s the key to success.

Southern Methodist, who is 3-8 and in 11th-place in Conference USA, scores 24.4% of their total points from the charity stripe. Their 13-13 record isn’t a direct reflection of poor shooting or a bad free throw shooting percentages, in fact, they’re actually pretty solid at both field goal percentage (44.4%) and free throw percentage (75.8%).

Free throws will help you win close games, but outscoring a team by 12 at the line over the course of a game doesn’t necessarily mean a victory. There’s no rhyme or reason to what wins games in college basketball outside of solid defense, an efficient offense and not turning the ball over.

But when you hear announcers say in the last minute, “These free throws are going to cost them,” it isn’t always true. It might have been a turnover earlier in the game or a defensive lapse that ultimately cost them. Good teams miss free throws and  bad teams make free throws and vice versa.

Making your free throws down the stretch with your team leading by a point or two will help, but a buzzer-beater can undo a perfect night at the free throw line. And there’s one thing you can’t practice for–free throws under pressure.

Practice your free throws.

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