NC State, who led the nation in free throw shooting at around 80% last season, has started out this year 20 for 34 (59%) from the line in two games. If State kept up this pace they would be vying for national basement honors by March. But even if that did happen, it shouldn’t be much of a story since free throw percentage is not all that important to winning. Yes, that’s correct. In the short term, fans get bent out of shape over a poor free throw shooting performance by its team. But the consistent long-term success of a team is more dependent on how many times you get to the line.
Most teams average around a point per possession, and shoot at least 60% from the line. So in the long run, any trips to the line for two will be more productive than running the regular offense, even on those squads full of free throw bricklayers. Don’t get me wrong, shooting well from the line is better than shooting poorly. But not getting to the line very often is a drain on the offense no matter how well you shoot free throws. Equally important to this concept is preventing your opponent from getting a lot of free oppotunities. And finally, if you can do both of those things well – have a large free throw difference with respect to your opponents – your chances of winning regularly go up even more. When I get a chance, I’ll post how teams that led these various categories last season fared in the win/loss columns.
On a related note, I can only pity the person who claims to be in the know that states that free throw shooting is so much poorer today than it was in the good ol’ days. According to the NCAA Basketball Record Book, national free throw percentage in the 2003 season was 69.4%, a number exceeded only by two other seasons, 1979, and 1980. So despite the increasing restrictions on practice time in recent years and an alleged trend towards more ‘street ball’, free throw shooting is better than it was at any time in the ’50s and ’60s.