Mind-Boggling: Free Throw Shooting in NCAA Basketball

January 10th, 2007

On Saturday morning, January 6, within a half hour of waking up, I sat down at my computer and went to the Prep Sports section of the Milwaukee Journal/Sentinel to check out how the varsity girls’ basketball team at the school where I teach had done the night before. Not only had I taught many of the girls on the team, but I had also coached them when they were in eighth grade as well as in summer leagues. After seeing that they had won, I glanced at the box score and noticed that the girls had made 11 of 17 free throws (64.7%). I really didn’t give that figure much thought until about 9:00 that evening.

In the interim, I watched three Big East games and was struck by the extremely poor free throw shooting. I then checked the box scores for these games on line; indeed, the free throw shooting was, in general, atrocious.

In the Georgetown – Notre Dame game, the Hoyas made six of 13 free throws (46.2%). In the DePaul – Villanova game, the Wildcats made 10 of 16 charity shots (62.5%), which was better than the Demons shot – 15 of 26 (57.7%). Finally, Connecticut traveled to Baton Rouge to play LSU where the Huskies hit a miserable 11 of 24 (45.8%) from the line.

I wondered whether these were just isolated instances or relatively common occurrences, so over the weekend (January 6 and 7) I examined the box scores of every game involving teams from the six major conferences – a total of 35 games involving 69 teams (Nebraska played Western Kentucky, which, by the way, made only 40.0% of its free throws).

The way I see it, no high major D-1 college men’s team should shoot below 70% from the free throw line. In fact, 75% should be a reasonable, reachable goal.

I am 60 years old and not exactly in tip-top shape. Now that I am not coaching, I hardly ever even touch a basketball, but even when I did, I’d shoot a few free throws maybe two or three times a week and never more than 20 or 25 free throws on any given day. Still, when I did shoot free throws, I was disappointed if I made only seven of 10, an occurrence that, thankfully, almost never happened. Eight of 10 was an acceptable performance, and it was not uncommon for me to sink nine of 10. Sometimes I’d hit 10 straight, or more, and I didn’t even play high school basketball, let alone college hoops.

I’m not bringing these figures up to praise my free throw accuracy. I bring them up because I can’t figure out how a middle-aged, relatively non-athletic, extremely out-of-shape individual who hardly ever gets on the court can shoot a higher percentage than superb athletes who play basketball practically every day of their lives and work on their free throw shooting during every practice and most likely on their own as well.

But I digress. Back to the state of free throw shooting in the ACC, Big East, Big 10, Big 12, Pac 10, and SEC. Of the 69 teams from these conferences that played on that Saturday and Sunday, only 32 made 70% of higher of their free throws, meaning 37 teams (53.6%) made fewer than 70% of their charity tosses. In fact, 29 of those 69 (42.0%) shot a lower percentage than the 64.7% our high school girls’ team shot on Friday night!

Here are some specific performances by various teams from the line that weekend:

Georgia – 0 of 5 (00.0%)
Penn State – 2 of 7 (28.6%)
Auburn – 2 of 5 (40%)
Marquette – 6 of 15 (40%)
South Carolina – 8 of 19 (42.1%)
Connecticut – 11 of 24 (45.8%)
Georgetown – 6 of 13 (46.2%)
Florida – 9 of 18 (50%)
West Virginia – 2 of 4 (50%)
Kentucky – 10 of 19 (52.6%)
Mississippi State – 10 of 19 (52.6%)
Vanderbilt – 9 of 17 (52.6%)
Rutgers – 8 of 15 (53.3%)
Wake Forest – 12 of 22 (54.5%)
Colorado – 8 of 14 (57.1%)
Minnesota –8 of 14 (57.1%)
DePaul – 15 of 26 (57.7%)
Oklahoma – 11 of 19 (57.9%)
North Carolina State – 7 of 12 (58.3%)
Pittsburgh – 7 of 12 (58.3%)
South Florida – 7 of 12 (58.3%)
Michigan – 10 of 17 (58.8%)

That’s 22 of 69 teams (31.9%) – essentially one in three teams - that shot below 60%! Another 15 teams managed to shoot in the 60s:

Ohio State – 9 of 15 (60.0%)
Syracuse – 21 of 35 (60.0%)
Michigan State – 14 of 23 (60.9%)
Iowa State – 10 of 16 (62.5%)
Villanova – 10 of 16 (62.5%)
Washington State – 12 of 19 (63.2%)
Duke – 18 of 28 (64.3%)
Cincinnati – 4 of 6 (66.7%)
Florida State – 10 of 15 (66.7%)
St. John’s – 12 of 18 (66.7%)
UCLA – 12 of 18 – (66.7%)
Alabama – 13 of 19 (68.4%)
Tennessee – 20 of 29 (69.0%)
Miami – 9 of 13 (69.2%)
Purdue – 16 of 23 (69.6%)

How can this be? How can D-1 level athletes who work on their game probably seven days a week for 12 months a year and have some of the top coaching in the country shoot such poor percentages on 15-foot, undefended shots? It boggles the mind.

Marquette Coach Tom Crean is apparently as baffled as I am. During a post-game press conference in mid-December, he didn’t even give the media a chance to ask him about the topic of free throws. He brought it up first following a 6 of 18 performance from the line by his squad. He said his players work on free throws every day in practice under all kinds of conditions. He stated that the only way they could work on them any more would be if they slept in the gym.

Crean is not alone in wondering what he can do to improve his team’s free throw shooting. As of Sunday, January 7, a total of 44 of the 73 teams (60.2%) in the six “power conferences” were shooting below 70% from the line. Fifteen of those 44 teams are below 65%. That’s 20.5% - one of five teams – below 65%!

I’ve heard various theories over the years about why free throw shooting has become such a problem. One rationale is that today’s players concentrate so much on flashy drives and dunks on one hand and three pointers on the other, the mid-range game has suffered, and with it, so has free throw shooting.

Another “explanation” is that the proliferation of AAU basketball has eroded young players’ development of fundamentals, including shooting. The emphasis instead is on run-and-gun, up-tempo basketball.

Whatever the reason, or reasons, the bottom line is that free throw shooting has become an unwanted adventure for numerous teams across the country. I can’t help wondering whether or not the level of free throw shooting has declined over the last decade or two. I don’t have the time or the inclination to try to dig up the stats that might answer that question. All I do know is that I am shocked at how many college teams are struggling from the so-called charity stripe.