By The Numbers: Free Throws

Inspired partly by Card Chronicle member Carolina "FTs & Rebounds" Cardinal, I examined Louisville's free throw shooting numbers during Denny Crum's thirty year career at UofL and compared them to Rick Pitino's tenure at UofL and the national average.

Even hardcore college basketball fans may not realize that while weight training, nutrition, integration and other physical and sport-specific aspects have changed exponentially over the last fifty years, free throw percentages haven't. Like, at all. It's been the one constant of the game, other than Wisconsin's slow adjusted tempo (kenpom joke).

Does it surprise you that over the last fifty years the average FT% in NCAA D-I hoops has consistently hovered around 69%, never once exceeded 70% and rarely dipped below 68%? No? Maybe it's just me. I lead a rather boring life and am surprised rather easily. I jump a lot during movies, no matter how predictable a "something loud and scary is about to happen" scene is. Some people think it's cute. Most judge.

So, who would you guess had the best FT% during their tenure at Louisville, Crum or Pitino? It's actually pretty close:



FTM

FTA

FT%

Denny Crum (1971-2001)

14,976

21,704

69%

Rick Pitino (2001-2011)

4,950

7,232

68.44%

The two coaches also share similar high/low numbers for FT%:

High FT%

Low FT%

Denny Crum (1971-2001)

75.2% (1974-75)

63.5% (1993-94)

Rick Pitino (2001-2011)

74.9% (2003-04)

63.2% (2001-02)

The first thing you should notice is that Crum's high FT% mark occurred during a season where Louisville reached the Final Four. Pitino's high mark however, yielded a one-and-done finish (via Xavier) in the NCAA Tournament. The same dissonance can be found in the low FT% column. Crum's low mark resulted in a Sweet 16 run where the Cards lost to Arizona 70-82, despite hitting 13 of their 16 free throws (81%). Conversely, Pitino's low mark came in his first season at Louisville, which ended in a 62-65 second round NIT loss to Temple, where the Cards hit just 5 of 8 free throws (62.5%).

So, what's the point? Mostly just adding to the discussion. Though there are teams (read: coaches) who consistently excel at free throw shooting. Bob McKillop at Davidson and Coach K at Duke, for example, seem to always assemble elite free throw shooting teams. Both have had a couple average years (Duke is only shooting 68% so far this season), but more often than not they're fielding teams that shoot north of 72% at the line and they've never had a team shoot worse than 67.8% in the kenpom era (2003-present). But, are they exceptions to the rule or do they recruit and cultivate an atmosphere of good free throw shooting better than other coaches?

Probably a little of both.

In my limited experience playing organized ball, I found that coaches can only teach technique. Sounds pretty obvious, right? Sure, some of us poor FT shooters couldn't leave the gym until we hit ten in a row after a conditioning-heavy session, but that's not enough to reap noticeable results for the average athlete. Great college free throw shooters are cultivated on early mornings and late nights, typically alone with the student manager assigned to help shag their rebounds. Those who sacrifice a chunk of their social lives to put up hundreds of shots each day to meet personal goals.

It's no coincidence to me that Louisville's best free throw shooting years under Pitino happened while Francisco Garcia and Taquan Dean were on scholarship. The two best friends who, according to folklore at the time, often slept in the gym so they could eat jumpers for breakfast and practice their craft while other players dribbled on their pillows. Were they good free throw shooters before coming to Louisville? Probably. But so were Justice, Siva and myriad other college players who struggle making the transition.

I'm not implying current UofL players are lazy and never practice in their free time. But it makes one wonder what they practice in their free time and about the techniques--both mental and physical--being implemented by the coaching staff. Maybe free throw shooting isn't a top priority and there's a valid reason, i.e. less return on investment relative to three point shooting and weightlifting in Pitino's system. Again, this goes back to free throw shooting being an individual endeavor for many players.

While Louisville's recent free throw shooting numbers (68.3% this season, 66.3% last year) are nowhere near Duke or Davidson's normal level, Chronicloids can find some comfort that they're better than Crum and Pitino's low marks and much, much better than Calipari's Memphis teams, one of which shot just 61% on the year. That year was 2008, when the Tigers lost the National Championship game to Kansas after missing four of their final five free throws in the last 90 seconds. You already know that because it has become Exhibit A in every "free throw shooting matters, damnit!" diatribe, from amateurs to paid analysts. This one is heavily amateur.

In conclusion, free throws do matter (duh) but they have less correlation with win-loss records and end-of-season success than many presume. [Discussion about free throw rate omitted for time.]

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