Welcome to Play-by-Play Theater, the very irregular feature where I mine play-by-play data from the past five-plus seasons to discover the wacky things that happen in darkest corners of the college basketball universe.
It was another epic night for #TeamBadLuck on Tuesday night. At one point, Florida missed seven consecutive free throws in the second half while seeing a six-point lead over Missouri turn into a six-point deficit. But was that really a big deal? The record for consecutive made free throws by one team is documented in the NCAA Basketball Record Book. I even wrote about it when it happened. Ah, those were the days when explaining the binomial distribution sufficed for insightful basketball analytics.
Nobody knows the record for consecutive missed free throws by a team, though. And because people were worse free-throw shooters in the ‘50s and ‘60s, it’s a safe bet that the true record occurred a long time ago, before people were producing play-by-play data. But we can check the play-by-play data that exists since the 2009-10 season, which includes over 31,000 games, to get a feel for what an exceptional streak of misses looks like.
The PBP-era record-holder is Alabama State, whose streak of 14 misses spanned the end of an overtime loss to Jackson State and the beginning of a win against Grambling in 2001. The Hornets were not a good free-throw shooting team that season, but also not historically bad, connecting on 61.2 percent against D-I foes, good for eighth-worst in the country.
In terms of a single game, Savannah State missed its final 13 free throws in a 66-47 loss to Marshall on November 16th of this season. SSU is actually the worst free-throw shooting team in the nation this season, but at 56.3% missing 13 in a row is still a special accomplishment. The Tigers made their first free throw in the following game against Winthrop to avoid joining Alabama State in the record books.
Here are the four streaks of at least 12 misses over the last six seasons:
14 Alabama State vs Jackson State (last 6, 1-4-11), Grambling (first 8, 1-6-11)
13 Savannah State vs. Marshall (11-16-14)
12 Louisiana-Monroe vs Troy (1-26-13)
12 Texas A&M-Corpus Christi vs New Orleans (1-24-15)
The Louisiana-Monroe case is particularly heartbreaking as the Warhawks missed their last 12 attempts in a 71-64 loss to Troy that went to overtime. It’s always too simplistic to say that free-throw shooting cost a team a victory – another defensive rebound here or a made bucket there and ULM wins in regulation despite the poor shooting – but the Warhawks could not have felt good about their effort from the freebie spot that week.
We should also note for posterity that Bucknell tossed up 13 consecutive bricks in a November 21, 2003 loss at Michigan State. It was an incredible one-for-17 effort from the free throw line in a game that was competitive most of the way. There are surely other cases like that in history, but without comprehensive play-by-play data prior to the 2010 season, we can only rely on memories.
Another pre-PBP era game of note was College of Charleston’s 0-for-11 game against UNC-Greensboro on December 6, 2008. Amazingly, that was a 15-point win for the Cougars. Who needs free throws? C of C made its last free throw of the prior game and first free throw of the next game, however, so the streak was stopped at 11.
While we’re here, let’s record how many consecutive free throws that two teams have combined to miss. As it turns out, 11 is the record and it has been done twice. Once was the Savannah State/Marshall game and the other was a November 23rd game from this season between UMass-Lowell and Fordham.
So there you have it. Everybody is trying to make their free throws (except in some unusual late-game situations). But no team can make them all. And sometimes a team can’t make any of them.