Debunking The 'WSU Stinks At Crunch Time Free Throws' Myth

When the game tonight against UCLA is close, and WSU heads to the free throw line, how are you going to feel?

After last week's debacle of a performance at the free throw line which more or less directly led to a loss to Washington, which basically came on the heels of Brock Motum missing a ton of free throws down the stretch against Arizona, the popular opinion circulating seems to be that season percentage be damned -- the Cougars have shot 72 percent from the line in 620 attempts -- WSU can't make pressure-packed free throws.

Here's a conversation between Ian Furness and Jason Puckett on Sports Radio KJR in the Seattle area on Monday (the conversation starts at about the 37-minute mark):

Ian: "This is where stats drive me insane. ... Numbers don't tell the story a lot of times. If this is the second-best free throw shooting team in the league -- that's fantastic. But not when the game is on the line. Not in the final five minutes."

Jason: "I'd like to have a separate stat of within five minutes to go, or within 10 minutes remaining in the game, what their free throw numbers are. I guarantee they're not 75 percent."

Ian: "No! God no they're not!"

I have tremendous respect for both of these guys. And I know it's tough to talk for the better part of three hours without sometimes talking out of your rear end -- heck, I do the same thing on a once-a-week, 30- or 45-minute podcast. However, it's important to cross check assumptions with facts. This is why stats don't drive me insane -- unlike our perceptions, stats aren't overly influenced by the memory of recent (emotionally draining) events.

I did a little research into just how WSU has performed "when the game is on the line." And the results will probably surprise Ian, Jason, and other like-minded Cougs.

The first thing I did was try to define just what "when the game is on the line" means. Furness suggests final five minutes; Puckett suggests final 10 minutes. Since 10 minutes is approximately one quarter of the game, that seems like a little much. It seemed to me that five minutes is heading in the right direction, but I don't think it's enough to just look at the final five minutes of every game -- after all, since the impetus for the discussion was that the Cougs didn't perform well at the end of Arizona and UW, shouldn't we be looking only at games where the outcome is in doubt down the stretch?

So, here's what I settled on: Free throws that took place once the game got within two possessions at any point in the final four minutes. Two possessions is close enough that something can happen, even up until the final minute; the last four minutes is basically the stretch run of a game, given that the final media timeout happens at the first whistle under that mark.

And lest anyone think I'm rigging the data, I put the question out on Twitter and decided on this with the input of others.

WSU has played in 13 games that meet those conditions, taking 64 free throws. It's not a huge sample size, but it's a little more than 10 percent of the total number of free throws the team has taken this year, so it's not insignificant. Here's how the second-best free throw shooting team in the conference -- remember, they shoot 72 percent overall -- did:

Opponent FTM FTA Pct.
Gonzaga 5 5 100%
UC Riverside 3 5 60%
Idaho 1 2 50%
Oregon State (1) 9 12 75%
Utah 4 5 80%
Stanford 10 12 83%
Cal 4 5 80%
ASU (1) 6 6 100%
USC (1) 2 3 67%
UCLA (1) 0 0 N/A
Oregon (2) 0 0 N/A
Arizona (2) 3 7 43%
Washington (2) 1 2 50%
TOTAL 48 64 75%

Yep -- WSU has actually shot better "when the game is on the line" than it has on the season. The difference is so small though, that what we've really got is this: The Cougars shoot free throws pretty much exactly the same in close and late situations as they do the rest of the game.

The funny thing is that if you take out Motum's out-of-character performance against Arizona, the number shoots up even further. Would that suddenly have made the Cougs "clutch" instead of "chokers?" No, and that's the point: In lieu of doing extensive research on the topic, pure statistical tendencies suggest that these things simply tend to even out over the course of a season. There's research in other sports to suggests "clutch" doesn't really exist, at least not as some repeatable skill. The natural flip side is that "choke" probably isn't really a "skill" either. Remember, Alex Rodriguez wasn't a postseason choker in Seattle ... then he was in New York ... then he wasn't in New York.

I think this is a case where the mind plays tricks on people based on recent phenomena. Made free throws "when the game is on the line" were absolutely crucial in victories over Oregon State, Stanford and California, and allowed WSU to stay close in other games. It definitely cost them one game, and possibly another. These things happen over the course of a season, but the one thing you can't deny is this: WSU is a hell of a team at the free throw line.

But what about the horrendous 6-for-20 in the second half against the Huskies? Let me ask you a question instead: Can you remember the Cougs shooting so poorly from the free throw line for such an extended stretch? Ever?

I can't either. But I can remember the flip side: WSU hitting 27 of 29 against the Cardinal. I also remember them hitting 32 of 36 at UW last year and 28 of 28 at Oregon in 2009.

Those were just as fluky. But because they positively the outcomes of games -- WSU ended up winning all of them -- that's ascribed to skill, rather than good fortune.

Extra good day ... extra bad day ... it's all the same folks.

So, when Reggie Moore steps up to the free throw line in the last four minutes tonight with the game within two possession, live in the moment, but resist the urge to paint the team with a broad and inaccurate brush if he misses one. (Or even two.)

For futher reading, here's all the data broken down by game and player.

And if you are really, really interested in research on free throw performance, check out this piece by Ken Pomeroy and this research paper that's going to be presented this weekend at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston.

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