There's one thing that's been on my mind lately and reader Geoffrey sums up my thoughts well.
As a Memphis fan, I'm really getting tired of the missed FT talk. I noticed that off two of the FT misses against Miss. State, the Tigers got offensive rebounds on which they got a three pointer and a two pointer. In other words, the Tigers got five points when if they made the FTs, they would have gotten two. The Tigers won yesterday by 3. Hmmmm.... Maybe there should be a new statistic in your books for effective FT%.
Free throw shooting has been a hot topic around a couple of teams with title aspirations, Tennessee and Memphis. Just two teams have won a national title in the 64/65 team era while shooting less than 66% from the free throw line, and no team has done it shooting worse than 62%. Tennessee is shooting 65.6%, ranking 280th (62nd worst) in the land. Memphis is shooting 59.2%, second-worst in the country. Ergo, Memphis cannot win the national title, and Tennessee probably won't either, simply because they can't make free throws like most elite teams. Most commentators will take the explanation a step further and note that Memphis and Tennessee will struggle in close games because of this deficiency. After all, there is the recent memory of Tennessee losing to Arkansas by a point in the SEC Tournament after missing late free throws.
However, this is a case of taking two things that seem to happen together and conclude that the two events are related. They aren't.
For one thing, the ability to make free throws has very little correlation to winning close games. It needs to be noted that just three teams in the country have a better track record than Tennessee in close games this season. The Volunteers are 8-2 in one-possession games--games decided by three points of less at the end of regulation. Memphis hasn't been in many of those games this season, but has won all three they've come across. That's 11-2 for the two bricklayers combined in close game action.
If you're still unconvinced, consider the plight of the Wagner Seahawks. They put together a record in close games that we may not see matched for a long time. In one-possession games they were 9-1, and 12-1 if we expand our definition to include four-point games. That's amazing considering they were just 11-7 in all other games. Wagner might win a free throw contest against Memphis, but not many other teams. The Seahawks shot 59.9% on the season, fourth-worst in Division I.
So why, then, has there not been a poor free-throw shooting champion in a while? It's a matter of sheer numbers. This season 70 of 341 (21%) Division I teams shot worse than 66% from the line. Over the past five seasons, just nine of 80 (11%) teams that received a top-four seed shot that poorly. During that same time, only one of 20 (5%) one-seeds qualified as lousy free throw shooters. When only 5-10% of legitimate title contenders are poor free throw shooting teams, does it really say anything about their title chances when 9% (2 out of 23) of title winners since 1985 have shot worse than 66% from the line?
It's difficult to assemble a collection of great basketball players who all happen to shoot free throws poorly. Of course, if Memphis or Tennessee could shoot 80% from the line, each would be harder to defeat, but if they improved any of their weaknesses they would also be more bulletproof. Geoffrey's point shouldn't be lost, either, at least for Memphis. With some combination of Joey Dorsey, Robert Dozier and Shawn Taggart on the blocks, the Tigers are able to minimize some of their free throw woes through offensive rebounding.
The following log5 analysis shows that each of these teams is very likely to lose some time in the next two weeks. That loss will probably be a close one, and based on each team's track record, it will involve missed free throws. It's also about as certain that the reason for the loss will go much deeper than free throw shooting. There's nothing we can do though, except snicker when CBS shows us the special "UConn graphic" during Friday's Memphis game indicating that the national champion with the worst percentage from the line made just 62.3% of its free throws during the season.
These probabilities are based on each team's Pomeroy Rating through Monday's games.
Elite8 Final4 Final Champ
1MW Kansas 93.2 64.5 48.5 33.8
1W UCLA 92.1 71.3 46.2 22.9
3MW Wisconsin 82.7 32.0 19.9 11.1
1S Memphis 69.2 44.2 22.9 9.8
1E North Carolina 56.5 34.3 12.2 6.0
3E Louisville 60.5 27.9 8.3 3.6
4E Washington St. 43.5 23.7 7.1 3.1
2S Texas 50.7 21.6 8.4 2.6
3S Stanford 49.3 20.6 7.9 2.4
3W Xavier 51.7 14.2 5.2 1.3
5S Michigan St. 30.8 13.6 4.6 1.2
2E Tennessee 39.5 14.2 3.1 1.0
7W West Virginia 48.3 12.7 4.5 1.0
10MW Davidson 17.3 2.3 0.6 0.1
12MW Villanova 6.8 1.1 0.2 0.03
12W W. Kentucky 7.9 1.8 0.3 0.02
The draw starts to have an impact once we get this far. Kansas and Wisconsin have high chances to win, partly because they are highly rated by my system and partly because they play the 14th and 15th best teams left in the field. Kansas' chances have actually dropped from 36.8% at the outset of the tourney. Keep in mind that Villanova is more highly rated now than Vanderbilt was back then, so it's not like the Jayhawks are getting a huge break all of a sudden. They got their break in the original draw by being paired with a weak four-seed.
Tennessee is the other eye-catcher. They rank ahead of just the four Cinderellas in terms of their chances to win it all. This is explained by being ranked much lower in my system than in the eyes of the public and the fact that they have the most difficult road to the title. North Carolina, Washington State and Louisville have arguably been the three most impressive teams in the tourney so far, and the Vols have to beat two of them just to get halfway to a title from this point.
UCLA's chances of a championship rose from 13.2% on Selection Sunday mainly because of drawing Western Kentucky in the Sweet 16, but also because the Bruins should get the weakest member of the Elite Eight if they advance.
Even though all four one-seeds made it through the first two rounds, the chances of the Doomsday Scenario have risen to just 6.8%. The odds are still stacked against Armageddon, and with people like Robbie Cowgill, Courtney Lee, Goran Suton and Dante Cunningham defending the sanctity of March Madness on Thursday and Friday, I'm sure we are in good hands.
Ken Pomeroy is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
You can contact Ken by clicking here or click here to see Ken's other articles.