As a Connecticut Huskies basketball fan since birth, I have only seen success. Legendary coach Jim Calhoun turned a program that never knew what winning was to a program that expects and demands greatness year in and year out. However, the one aspect of the game that really jumped out at me was the fact that UConn players very often missed their free throws.
As a student of the game growing up, I questioned — and still do — how a collegiate basketball player who spends hours in the gym daily can’t make free throws. I did a little research on the topic to see if there is any correlation between the number of team wins and the team’s free throw percentage. Here is what I found.
Right now as a team, the 10-1 No. 15 Huskies are shooting 73.9 percent from the charity stripe. That’s 164-for-222. That number leads the American Athletic Conference, with the Cincinnati Bearcats coming in second at 69.7 percent. Nationally, Providence leads with an astounding 81.6 percent, while Nicholls State is last in the country at 55.9 percent. But back to the Huskies.
Last season, Kevin Ollie’s first as head coach, the team shot 74.3 percent and finished 20-10 in a surprising year. Of course, the team missed the postseason due to NCAA academic violations, but the percentage was certainly an improvement over past seasons.
Before I get started with my history lesson, I’d like to first point out that there are two very important outliers in my research. In the 2010-11 season in which UConn won the National Championship, the team shot 76.3 percent from the line, which was its highest mark in the Jim Calhoun era. However, in their 2003-04 season, in which Calhoun won his second National Title, the team shot its lowest percentage under him at just 62.3 percent.
Just looking at those two seasons and their outcomes, you may want to stop reading right now as you may be skeptical that free throw percentage has anything to do with determining the outcome of games. But, give me a shot.
First, I’m going to ask you to ignore the anomaly that was the 2003-04 season. Following that title run in 2004-05, the Huskies shot 70 percent, went 23-8 and lost in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. In 2005-06, they shot 70.6 percent and lost in the national semifinal. In 2006-07, they shot 62.8 percent, went 17-14 and missed the tournament altogether.
In 2007-08, they shot an improved 72 percent, went 24-9, but lost in the first round. The next year, in 2008-09, they regressed, shooting 67.8 percent, which resulted in a national semifinal loss after a remarkable 31-5 overall season record. In 2009-10, they shot 68.9 percent, but missed the tournament after going 18-16. Following their National Championship in 2010-11, they shot 66.2 percent in 2011-12, eventually losing in the second round after a 20-14 season.
In their three most recent losses in the NCAA Tournament, to Iowa State in 2011-12, to Michigan State in 2008-09 and to San Diego in 2007-08, improved free throw shooting could have played an important factor in determining the outcomes of the most important games of the season.
Against Iowa State, the Huskies shot 15-for-22 and lost by 13. Against Michigan State, they shot 14-for-20 and lost by nine and against San Diego, they shot 16-for-20 and lost by one in overtime.
Using free throw percentage to predict the outcome of games might not be the best process. However, players who can knock down free throws in clutch situations such as Shabazz Napier and DeAndre Daniels on this year’s team are a luxury, and they can certainly change the outcome of a game (and of a season) with a bend of the knees and the flick of a wrist.