The 1984 Harvard Crimson improbably have held the season free-throw percentage record for three decades, even in the face of college basketball players collectively shooting better than ever. As we continue to see the national average in free-throw shooting hover around 70%, it seems like there should be an ever increasing number of candidates threatening the record each season.
It’s possible that 2017 could be the year that a team breaks the record, but this season will probably illustrate why that mark is so tough to reach. Since 2002, 13 teams have made it to January 16th shooting at least 80% from the free-throw line and three of those cases are this season. Most notably, Notre Dame has made 82.8% of its free-throw attempts so far, which is better than the Crimson’s season-long 82.2% back in ’84. And over the past 16 seasons, no team has been above the 82% mark on this date, so that would seem to bode well for potential free-throw shooting immortality.
But alas, if there’s one thing to learn from history, it’s that an extreme performance is the sum of great ability and great fortune. The ten previous teams that cleared the 80% at this point in the season finished the season a collective 78.8% from the line. From this point onward, those teams shot 76.8%. They were all very good shooting teams, but whatever good feelings existed over the first half of the season could not be duplicated over the second half.
So while Notre Dame has made nearly 83% of its free throws so far, their true ability is probably not that good. When someone says “Notre Dame shoots 83% as a team” they really mean “Notre Dame has shot 83% as a team”. We don’t know what Notre Dame is shooting right now, in the moment. Based on history I’d guess something like 78%, but nobody can know for sure.
If one does a regression trying to fit season-ending free-throw percentage to January 16th free-throw percentage, Notre Dame is predicted to finish right at 80%. That would make them the tenth-best team in NCAA history, so as a prediction, it’s fairly encouraging. Remember, records take talent and luck and we can’t predict luck, so that prediction is assuming no luck whatsoever.
One thing that I thought would benefit the Fighting Irish in this chase is that they don’t get fouled very often. We’re at roughly the halfway point of the season and they’ve attempted 297 free throws which is slightly off the pace of ’84 Harvard’s 651 attempts and Harvard played just 26 games that year.
It turns out my hunch was wrong. From a predictive standpoint, it’s beneficial for a team to have attempted more free throws to this point. More free-throw attempts give us a more reliable estimate of a team’s ability. Because Notre Dame has shot so few free throws, we can’t be as confident in the fact that nearly all of their players have improved their shooting over previous career averages.
In fact, Valparaiso, who has made 80.6% of their shots on 449 attempts, is probably about as good as Notre Dame in real life. The Crusaders are actually the favorite to lead the country in FT% from this point forward, but since Notre Dame already has a 2.2% advantage in the bank, the Fighting Irish are still the favorite to win the season-long FT% title.
However, in terms of producing an extreme performance, it helps that Notre Dame won’t be going to the free-throw line all that much. We need a lot of luck for this to happen, so the fewer trials the better. In 2011, both Wisconsin and Harvard improved on an first half performance of 80+%, but not enough to beat the record.1
But just three of the ten previous teams to break 80% have improved over the second half, and seven of the previous 47 that were above 78% at this point were able to improve. That helps explain why Notre Dame’s true chances are in the 10-20% range to make history based on this analysis. I hope it happens, but even though we’re halfway through the season, Notre Dame is not nearly halfway to setting the record.
|^1||Harvard added another free-throw distinction to its history that season, finishing with the best free-throw percentage to not win the season title (80.8%).|