During our ACC Tournament viewing party, the subject came up of how much more North Carolina goes to the free throw line than their opponents. One of the excuses we had always heard was that their talent level discrepancy leads to the free throw discrepancy (and absolutely nothing to do with biased officiating…) This led us to wonder about a team like Memphis that utterly dominates Conference USA and is head and shoulders above the rest of the league, what sort of free throw advantage do they have?
And that led fellow stat major and resident of Section 326 in the RBC Center who posts here as ruffles31 and myself to look at the free throw statistics for all 65 NCAA tournament teams and their opponents in conference play. Here are some observations we had from those free throw statistics.
There are 8 teams in the NCAA tournament that shot more than 6 free throws per game than their conference opponents.
1. Connecticut, +12.1
2. Siena, +10.8
3. Chattanooga, +10.5
4. North Carolina, +9.4
5. Texas A&M, +8.6
6. Marquette, +8.5
7. Washington, +8.4
8. Gonzaga, +6.9
There are 22 of the 65 teams that shot less free throws per game than their opponents in conference play. There doesn’t appear to be a significant difference between teams that won their conference title and teams that didn’t.
We noticed that 2 of the top 4 teams in this list are #1 seeds. That isn’t entirely surprising since those teams typically have won more games, therefore would be more likely to shoot more free throws, especially in the last couple minutes of games as losing opponents try to extend the game. However, the other two #1 seeds, Louisville and Pitt, shot less free throws than their opponents in Big East play. Could it be that Louisville and Pitt aren’t as much of a known quantity as Connecticut and North Carolina? You can make the case that in the past 3 years, two of the best 3 programs in the country are Connecticut and North Carolina, with Memphis being the other. Pitt is a relative newcomer to the top of the rankings while Louisville is a relative newcomer to the Big East. However, Marquette is new to the Big East as well with a new head coach and they were +8.5 in Big East play, go figure.
North Carolina has taken 9.4 more attempts per game than their opponents. To their credit, they average 8.6 more makes per game as well. That is more than 1 more made free throw per conference game than any other team in the tournament.
But when we look at the rest of the seeds, does anything jump out at us? Here are a couple of trends we noticed:
• 4 of the bottom 9 schools in this list are ACC teams (Florida St, Boston College, Clemson and Maryland). Does that surprise any ABC or ABD fan?
• Maryland and West Virginia had the largest disadvantage in free throw attempts at -3.6 per game. Both teams play in major conferences and are smaller up front and perimeter oriented. Not too surprising.
• All 12 teams seeded 2-4 shot more free throws than their opponents.
• For seeds 5-7, only 3 of the 12 teams shot more free throws than their opponents.
• The teams in the middle, seeds 8-10, are what you would think. 7 of 12 teams shot more free throws than their opponents.
• Interestingly, all 9 of the 15 and 16 seeds (including the two teams for the opening round game) have a positive free throw attempts difference. This could be due to them being the best team in their conference.
• Chattanooga, who won the Southern Conference, has a monstrous + 10.5 difference, which is very impressive in that they were only the 3rd best team in their league behind the Davidson Currys and Bobby Cremins’ College of Charleston.
• Memphis was the team that sparked the idea for this analysis and they were +4.8 which puts them 14th overall in free throw attempts difference.
What about the Hansbrough factor? We all know that Tyler Hansbrough flails about in the lane all bug-eyed and mouth hanging open and the ACC refs we all know and love send him to the line. Do the other schools with the big free throw advantages have a similar meal ticket player? Here are the players with the highest average free throw attempts in conference play for those teams (Note, Siena and Washington don’t have individual conference stats available)
7.9 – Tyler Hansbrough, North Carolina, 6-9 F
7.2 – Nicchaeus Doaks, Chattanooga, 6-7 F
6.2 – Jerel McNeal & Wesley Matthews, Marquette, 6-3 & 6-5 G
5.4 – Matt Bouldin, Gonzaga, 6-5 G
5.2 – Bryan Davis, Texas A&M, 6-9 F
5.1 – Hasheem Thabeet, Connecticut, 7-3 C
In conclusion, for the most part the top overall teams and the small conference winners tend to have a positive free throw difference. However, the largest differences show that some teams definitely get to the line more than others. North Carolina is a great example of this. They make 8 more free throws per game than their opponents, which is more than all but 3 other tournament teams have in a free throw attempts difference. Most of the differences aren’t something you would complain about after a game. If Duke shoots 5 more free throws or if West Virginia and Maryland shoot 4 less you wouldn’t think a whole lot about it. But when the differences get into the 8 to 12 range you begin to wonder if there are other factors involved.
The New York Times has an excellent similar article focusing on Connecticut that you can read here.
Here are the conference free throw attempt differences by seed:
North Carolina, +9.4
Michigan St, +4.3
Wake Forest, +2.9
Florida St, -2.4
Arizona St, +2.4
West Virginia, -3.6
Boston College, -2.8
Ohio St, +3.1
Oklahoma St, -0.5
Texas A&M, +8.6
Southern Cal, +1.1
Utah St, +3.4
Northern Iowa, +5.9
Western Kentucky, +0.2
Cleveland St, +3.7
Mississippi St, +1.4
Portland St, -0.1
North Dakota St, +3.9
Stephen F Austin, -2.4
Cal St Northridge, +1.6
Robert Morris, +1.1
Morgan St, +0.4
Morehead St, +2.6
Alabama St, +1.1
Just as an aside, when you look at ACC teams, 6 teams have a positive difference:
North Carolina, +9.4
Wake Forest, +2.9
Virginia Tech, +2.6
NC State, + 0.5
The other teams have a negative difference:
Florida State, -2.4
Boston College, -2.8
Georgia Tech, -5.9
You would expect the 1st tier teams to be positive (North Carolina, Duke, Wake) and the 4th tier teams to be negavtive (Virginia, Georgia Tech) but we found it interesting that the 3rd tier teams (Virginia Tech, Miami and NC State) were positive while the 2nd tier teams (Florida St, Boston College, Clemson, Maryland) were negative.
Feel free to share any observations or conclusions you may have, we’d love to hear them.