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The Problem With Free Throw Rate

As I'm sure many of you loyal CougCenter-ers are aware, we're big fans of the four factors here. Basketball is a complex game... but it can often be boiled down to the four core components of shooting, rebounding, turnovers and free throws. They are not all equal; as shooting is king (that's obvious to your eyes and to statisticians) and the rest follow. Still, they are all important, and excelling in one area is a great way to give your team a competitive edge.

Before our game with Cal today I'm going to bring up free throw rate, as it was absolutely key in the Cougars' 81-69 triumph over the Stanford Cardinal. Now, I have to qualify that it certainly wasn't the only thing at play, and the stats are skewed by the fact that Johnny Dawkins spent most of the final three minutes hacking any Cougar that moved (especially Marcus Capers). But that's still important because free throws are a wonderful way of comeback prevention. Meaning had the Cardinal gone absolutely nuts from behind the arc near the end of the game, the Cougars still could've won by trading 2 points for every 3 made, instead of 0 or 1 for every 3. We've lost games in the past by failing to make free throws in the final two minutes.

The Cougars attempted 29 free throws and made 27 (!) against Stanford. [Side note: It's funny how no one says anything about free throws made when you're shooting 90+ percent, but we all go ballistic when the team misses half their freebies.] That's exactly one out of every three Cougar points coming from the charity stripe. It was key in the Cougars' dominating offensive performance over a Stanford team that is excellent defensively: rated 42nd nationally and 4th in the conference in adjusted defensive efficiency. Other factors were in play (namely, excellent shooting nights by Aden, Motum and Reggie Moore), but free throws were a huge factor for WSU.

In theory, a coach could use free throw rate to a critical advantage. Keep his team aggressive, drive the lane, and earn points at the line. Drawing fouls also has the added bonus of keeping your opponent in foul trouble, and getting key players (especially big men) to foul out early or miss major minutes. But here's the problem: studies have shown that referees like to conceal any question of bias by keeping foul counts even. From this ESPN article:

• The bigger the difference in fouls between the two teams playing, the more likely it was that the next call would come against the team with fewer fouls. When the home team had five or more fouls than the visiting team, there was a 69 percent chance the visiting team would be whistled for the next foul.

And there you go. You can draw fouls - legitimate fouls - all you want, but when the disparity becomes too great, you lose the benefit of the doubt on the other end. Suddenly your team is getting called for fouls and your opponent's free throw rate increases accordingly. Free throw rate has a limit, therefore, in how much it can help you win. If refs were robots programmed to only call fouls without concerns of bias, it's possible free throw rate could be a bigger factor in a game. But that won't happen until much later this century.

It's great that the Cougs are doing well at the line. 44th nationally in free throw rate. It's even better that they are making their free throws: 93rd nationally at 71.5 percent. But if the Cougs are going to sink or swim down the stretch in the Pac-12, it will depend more on the other three factors: shooting, rebounding and turnovers.