Making free throws can help sway the outcome of close games. Of course, if your team can’t get to the free-throw line, it’s hard to make them.
Last month, I sought input on free-throw shooting from my panel of three basketball coaching experts—Don Brubacher, director of athletics at Hillsdale College and longtime men’s basketball coach at Tabor College; Rusty Allen, vice president for athletics at Tabor College and former TC women’s basketball coach and former Hesston High School boys’ coach; and Darrel Knoll, longtime head boys’ coach at Hillsboro High School.
In my 36 years of officiating basketball, I wish I had a dollar for every time a player missed a free throw. I remember a high school coach getting more and more frustrated as his players clanked one free throw after another. After yet another foul, I was standing near the coach and he asked, “Joe, can you shoot free throws?”
Free throws can either clinch a victory or give the trailing team hope. Any rational KU fan (is that an oxymoron?) has to admit the Jayhawks wouldn’t have won the national championship a couple of years ago if Memphis State had made a few clutch free throws.
Still, I was curious to know what my panel of experts thought about the importance of free-throw shooting.
“It’s probably not fair to say that free throws are overrated, as they determine the outcome of many games, but it is also correct to say that they are just one of many factors that affect a team’s success,” said Brubacher.
Coach Knoll said, “Free throws are extremely important, especially when the game is on the line and down the stretch of the season. I know that several of my teams have shot extremely well in the fourth quarter of games. Also, we have continually improved percentage as the season progresses.
“In many close games, one can look at the free-throw disparity and rebounds. For example, we lost a close game to Collegiate in the 1996 state semifinal. Collegiate made 20 of 25 free throws. We were two of two. We had a lead most of the game, but Collegiate ended up winning by seven, because they got to the line and made their free throws, especially in the fourth quarter.”
Most of Knoll’s teams at Hillsboro with 20 or more wins attempted more than 400 free throws, while their opponents had far fewer attempts. For example, in 1998, HHS attempted 514 free throws while opponents attempted 365.
“That stat shows two things: getting opponents in foul trouble while staying out of foul trouble ourselves,” said Knoll.
Allen said, “In one sense, free-throw shooting is overrated because what is probably more important is how many times your team gets to the line compared to how many times the opponent gets to the line. My best teams were at the free-throw line considerably more than our opponents.
“Keep in mind that getting to the line more often has more to do with a team’s defensive play than that same team’s offensive play. The general thinking is to attack the basket, be strong with the ball, etc., and you get to the line more often than your opponent.
“Obviously, there is some truth to this. However, what is often, and I would say most of the time, overlooked is the importance of not fouling.
“At all levels, players give way too many fouls away. This was a huge pet peeve of mine in my last few years at Tabor, and it paid big dividends for our teams, especially in big games.”
To its credit, my panel acknowledges that fouls and free-throw disparity is usually more a matter of the two teams’ respective offensive and defensive styles than unfairness on the part of the officials.
A Columbia University professor of statistics studied free-throw shooting percentages at all levels of men’s and women’s basketball during the last 50 years and noticed a remarkable trend—utter consistency.
Since the mid-1960s, college men’s players have made about 69 percent of their free throws. NBA players make about 75 percent of their free throws. Players in college women’s basketball and the WNBA reached similar plateaus—about equal to men—and stayed there.
Add it all up and the improved athleticism and strength of today’s athletes doesn’t seem to help much when it comes to shooting free throws