Wake Forest missed but one free throw in 53 attempts over the past two games against North Carolina and Florida State. Yet that miss cost them a win. Taron Downey clanked one with 4 seconds left in regulation that would have broken a 76-76 tie against FSU. The miss ended an NCAA record streak of 50 consecutive free throws made by Wake Forest. It adds further evidence that we’re in an era where free throws are like layups. Really, they need to move back that line.

(By the way, there’s been a discernible negative effect of playing UNC. Call it The Carolina Hangover. Each of UNC’s four ACC opponents have lost their next game. Overall, UNC opponents are 4-12 in their next contest.)

Back to the free throws. This incarnation of my blog essentially started with a post analyzing Kansas’ poor free throw shooting in the 2003 national championship game. So in that tradition, let’s look at the astronomical odds against Wake Forest making 50 in a row. It’s easy to do. Say a player shoots 75% from the line. The chance of him making two in a row is .75 x .75 or .5625 (56.25%). The chance of that player making four in a row is .75 x .75 x .75 x .75 (31.64%) and so on.

A rough approximation of Wake’s streak could be arrived at by using the Deacs’ team free throw percentage and muliplying it by itself 50 times (math-type people like to call this taking it to the 50th power). However, the team doesn’t shoot free throws, players do. So with that in mind, let’s look at the chances of each of the individual streaks involved in making up the new team record, using each player’s FT% after the FSU game. Here’s a breakdown of who made what free throws during the streak:

                               Chance of
                      Season   personal
               FTM      FT%    streak(%) 
Chris Paul......19     86.1      5.84 
Taron Downey.... 7     84.2     30.03 
Justin Gray..... 6     73.8     16.22 
Vytas Daneluis.. 6     70.8     12.63 
Jamaal Levy..... 4     45.8      4.41 
Chris Ellis..... 4     73.7     29.48 
Eric Williams... 4     60.0     12.96

There’s a couple of interesting things you can take away from this analysis. (1) Levy’s four consecutive free throws were less likely than Paul’s 19 in a row. (2) Overall the bad free throw shooters (Levy and Williams) didn’t participate much in this streak. Trent Strickland at 56% didn’t participate at all, despite playing 23 minutes during the streak.

The individual streaks were improbable, but what was the chance of the stars aligning – having all of the streaks happen simultaneously? We can multiply together the percentages in the right-most column to get the true odds of the overall event. The result is .000605%*. In other words it would happen once in every 1,651,987 sequences of 50 free throws. (In this case, each free throw starts a new sequence of 50.)

Q: So what does this number mean?

A: This kind of thing doesn’t happen very often. Assuming Wake Forest shoots 25 free throws a game, you would expect this event to happen to the Deacons once in every 66,000 games…2,200 seasons…110 generations.

If I had bet you before every free throw ever shot in the history of college basketball that the team of the shooter wouldn’t make their next 50, I would have been right every time – until this week. I don’t know how many free throws have been shot in the history of college hoops, but I’m guessing somewhere in the neighborhood of five million. So maybe this kind of streak was overdue, or maybe there’s some other factor that limits the probability of a streak like this more than the true odds would indicate, or maybe my estimate of five million is too high, or maybe this record has only been tracked over the last 30 years. All of these explanations are possible.

Regardless, there’s probably a grumpy old Wake fan out there who is saying that if they had just been better from the line, they’d wouldn’t have lost. And sometime around the year 4205 another grumpy old Wake fan will be saying the same thing.

*By comparison, if you use Wake’s team FT% of 69.6, you get the chances of .000013% or about once in 76,000,000! So clearly the distribution of free throws in this streak being skewed more than usual towards the good shooters made the record possible. (The weighted average FT% of shooters during the streak was 76.2)