[This is the first of a potentially recurring (though probably not) series called Is It Luck or Is it Skill? A look at various accomplishments with an eye towards whether it is due to luck or skill.]

I’ve been disappointed in recent seasons that even as free throw shooting has reached all-time highs, no team has made a credible run at 1984 Harvard’s record of 82.2% over a full season. The only real challenge in modern times was by 2011 Wisconsin, who entered what would be their final game against Butler in the Sweet 16 having made 423-of-514 attempts (82.3%). They made 13-of-19 against the Bulldogs to drop to 81.8%.

It’s hard to say why this is. Certainly, the increase in the number of games since 1984 makes it more difficult to break this record. But that is offset by the national improvement in free throw shooting, the increase in the number of teams, and the fact that we are in era with an historic low for free throw attempts on a per-possession basis. Wisconsin took 533 attempts in its run at history, but Harvard took 651 during its 27 game schedule in 1984. It seems like we should have fairly regular attempts at breaking the record.

Well, maybe this is the year. Through 11 games, Colorado has made 85.6 percent of its free throws, leading all teams that have played a nearly uninterrupted schedule. The first rule of Is It Luck or Is It Skill? is you don’t talk about Is It Luck or Is It Skill?. The second is to determine how much of an achievement is skill for the purpose of predicting the future. From there we can figure out the chance of Colorado setting this record.

You’re a smart person, so you understand that any entity leading anything has benefitted from at least a little bit of good fortune. We can see this by comparing Colorado’s start to the best teams from the past and seeing how close those past teams came to replacing Harvard in the record books.

Best FT% through 11 games (since 1997)
Team               Before Final After
2017 Notre Dame     86.4  80.0  76.9
2020 Pepperdine     85.9  79.1  75.7
2021 Colorado       85.6  ????  ????
2009 Green Bay      82.3  78.8  77.0
1999 Robert Morris  82.0  76.0  72.2
2017 E. Washington  81.8  77.0  75.0
2012 Denver         81.5  76.2  73.7
2020 Sacred Heart   81.5  73.4  69.8
2019 Incarnate Word 81.4  81.0  80.7
2014 Providence     81.3  80.3  76.9

You will notice that every single team shot a worse free-throw percentage after the 11th game. In fact, you have to get to the 23rd-best performance through 11 games to find a team that improved the rest of the season (2018 Central Michigan who went from 80.53% to 80.59%,) After that you have to get to the 41st-best performance to find the next team that improved.

All of these teams got worse not because they got tired or faced more pressure. It’s because they were good free throw shooting teams that benefited from good fortune at the line early in the season. The source of that good fortune is something worth thinking about.

It’s not that these teams are purely random-number generators. Their players have some talent shooting the basketball. For some period during the season, their form may be slightly better than at other times. In addition, better shooters may be fouled more often during certain stretches than other stretches. There’s also a physiological component to this. Even a player in good form can’t exactly reproduce his form in the middle of a basketball game. There is random variation in every shot.

Regardless of the reasons, the conclusion is clear: The grim reaper of regression is coming for Colorado and it’s coming soon. It’s probably waiting for them at the Huntsman Center tonight when they take on Utah. But let’s not get melodramatic. If a record is going to be set, this is the season. In addition to a shorter season, the lack of an audience might help as well.

In order to figure out if Colorado is the team to do it, we need to figure out how much of their performance has been skill and how much luck has been involved. We can get a feel for how much of CU’s shooting is skill by plotting past teams and comparing their shooting through 11 games with their shooting through the end of the season. Here’s what that looks like for all teams since 1997:

Based on a linear regression, we can estimate that Colorado’s skill is about 77.7%. At least, that’s what they should be expected to shoot the rest of the season. But they won’t! They won’t shoot exactly that for the rest of the season. For the same reason they’ve far exceeded their skill so far, stuff will happen to cause their FT% to not match their skill the rest of the season. This is why they have a chance at the record. How much of a chance? Well, I ran a Monte Carlo simulation for the rest of the season to figure this out using the following very simple assumptions:

– They will take 18 FTA’s per game
– They will play somewhere between 14 and 18 more games

This assumes they’ll play all of the games left on the schedule and makes allowances for some tournament games. 1

In 10,000 runs, 21% of simulations produced an FT% that would beat Harvard. The length of the season is a pretty big help to Colorado. If we assume a normal season, they’d play a minimum of 32 games. With a range of 32-36 games played, their chances drop to 9%. So this is the year to do it. 2

Of course, we don’t know Colorado’s true skill. It could be higher than the estimate of 77.7%. But given that every one of their rotation players is shooting better than their career average, it’s unlikely that it’s too much higher. Assuming the estimate is close, even in a season with limited games and limited free throws, Colorado has a difficult road to knocking Harvard from the record books. That goes a long way to explain why the record has stood for so long. Even the most skilled teams need a healthy dose of luck to challenge the record.

^1 Although it seems pretty unlikely to me that any conference tournaments will be played, but we’ll see. Also, I’m not sure how the NCAA will handle records this season. But if Colorado fails to play at least 27 games, I’d still recognize Harvard in some way. Their feat will be more impressive.
^2 What’s wild is that even assuming 18 free throws per game and a 36-game season, Colorado would shoot 645 free throws, six fewer than Harvard did over its 27-game schedule. Again, free throws are at an all-time low, so if you’re complaining about there being too many free throws in the modern game, you just like to complain.