Maybe John Calipari Was Right. . .

Posted by nvr1983 on March 5th, 2009

You may remember that one of the big stories from last year was Memphis and its inability to hit free throws. John Calipari was routinely questioned about it and shrugged it off essentially saying that his team was winning so it didn’t bother him that much. And with the national title game winding down they were in a position to bring Memphis its first title by knocking off Kansas. Then the unthinkable happened. Following the game Calipari was roundly mocked for his bold proclamations leading up to the game that free throws didn’t matter. You could definitely count us among those who made plenty of jokes at Calipari’s expense. Well it turns out that we may have been wrong. . .

Following up John Branch’s article on the remarkably constant free throw percentages over the past 50 years, Jack Styczynski decided to look deeper into free throw percentages. Styczynski, who was perturbed by Branch’s statement that ““there is little correlation between free-throw percentages and winning percentages”  looked through the NCAA’s basketball database and compared the team free throw percentages to the teams that made the Final 4 since 2000. Here is a summary of his findings:

  • In 2005 and 2007, none of the teams in the Final 4 were in the top 50 in team free throw percentage.
  • Last year, UNC (#13) was the only team in the Final 4 that ranked in the top 50 in Division I in free throw percentage.
  • In 2006, national champion Florida (#34) was the only team in the top 50. Apparently Billy Donovan decided to stop working on free throws the next year (and it didn’t matter).
  • Michigan State was the only other national champion to finish in the top 50 (#27 in 2000) during this period.
Rumeal Robinson hit some of the biggest FTs in NCAA history
Rumeal Robinson hit some of the biggest FTs in NCAA history

While all that historical information is nice, we at Rush the Court like to look to the future (namely this March and April) so I broke down the free throw percentages of the top 25 teams in the nation through the games that ended on March 3, 2009. I used the ESPN/USA Today rankings, which are slightly different than the AP rankings, but they have the same teams so we’re looking at the same sample either way. Using the NCAA’s statistics for games through March 1, 2009, the 50th best free throw shooting team (Seton Hall) was shooting 72.6% so I’m using that as the cut-off for this analysis. I have listed the free throw percentages and color-coded the teams into groups: red (<70%), yellow (70-72%), and green (>72%) .

fts-as-of-03-03-09The narrow range of the yellow group (2%) indicates how closely bunched together some teams are, but there are standouts for better or worse. UNC is by far the best free throw shooting team at 2.5% higher than Villanova (76.5% vs. 74.0%), which is the next best FT shooting team in the top 25. Syracuse is on the other end of the spectrum having the worst FT shooting (64.4%) of any team in the top 25, which has to worry Jim Boeheim a little bit. The primary cause of Syracuse’s poor free throw percentage is Arinze Onuaku, who shoots a horrific 31.1% (last in Division I for a player shooting over 100 FTs). The rest of Syracuse’s team isn’t that bad at the line (70% from the FT line). In any case, you can assume that you won’t be seeing much of Onuaku if Syracuse needs to seal a game from the free throw line. If anything, Rick Pitino should be more concerned as Louisville only shoots 64.7% and they lack someone like Onuaku who can be hidden on the bench late in games. For some perspective on these percentages, last year’s much-maligned Memphis team shot 61.4% from the free throw line.

What does all this mean? According to Branch’s article and tournament performance since 2000 it doesn’t mean much, but I do know that John Calipari would like to spend a little extra time in practice at the free throw line if he could go back to last year.

nvr1983 (1295 Posts)


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One Response to “Maybe John Calipari Was Right. . .”

  1. Jameson says:

    The way I look at free throws is the lower percentage your team shoots as a whole, the more likely your team will lose a game solely because of free throw shooting. The chances you’ll lose a game to free throws aren’t very high, but they still exist. Memphis went all year without losing a game to them until the National Championship where they let their diminish because of misses from the line.

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