Ask any Syracuse basketball fan what part of most games gets them the most riled up, and many will tell you, "free throws." Over the years, the Orange have never been a prolific team at the charity stripe. Sometimes it doesn't matter, while others (does 1987 ring a bell?) do.
I'm at a loss for why it's difficult for certain players and teams to make an uncontested basket, while they can make things look effortless when three guys are running towards them. So I decided to do a little research. First, I headed to my local rec center. Now, I realize it's impossible to replicate a big time basketball game. The crowd, the pressure, the fatigue. But I did my best. I made sure to work out lifting weights (very, very heavy weights, ah hem), then did some running (quite fast, ah hem) to get as tired as possible, which for me, doesn't take much. I then immediately headed to the courts for my experiment.
I did this on three separate occasions. The first time, I elected to shoot ten and see what happened. Started out two for four, and then made my last six for an 80 percent clip. Not too shabby for a guy that doesn't get to play much ball anymore. The second time I decided to do ten again. And once again, I left at 80 percent. So the third time I figured would be much of the same. How wrong I was. I hit the first two, the first four, the first six, the first eight, and yes, the first ten. I kept going, stopping after missing my first shot on the 19th attempt. Again, I'm a 35-year-old has been. I also understand that if you had me do this at the Carrier Dome or Rupp Arena, these numbers might change. But the fact is, numbers don't lie.
My next bit of research took me online. I entered thinking free throw shooting has gotten much worse over the years, but to my surprise, this wasn't true. This year's leader is Duke at 77.4%. The previous eight years saw the leaders between 78.4% and 79.8%. Those leaders were rarely atop the top-25: Southern Utah, Utah State, UTEP, NC State, Manhattan, and Morehead State. Villanova and St. Joe's are the only two that jump out. The only school in the past 13 years to average over 80 percent was Siena in the '97-'98 season, and they actually were atop the list again the following year.
Furthermore, the number of teams averaging over 75 percent (which is what I consider a decent number from the line) have been fairly consistent. At this point this season, only 14 are. But here are the numbers in the previous eight: 21, 19, 20, 20, 12, 11, 21, 20. Only a couple of hiccups in there. If you go back to the '96-'97 season, only four teams averaged at least 75%. Of course, I realize more teams are playing at the Division I level, but more teams doth-not guarantee better numbers.
If you look at the numbers between the '90's and this past decade, you'll see a remarkable increase in the number of teams shooting well from the line. So what does all this mean? My theory, and it's only a theory, is that with more parody in the game, more games are being determined down the stretch. All that pressure leads to a few more misses, and with more games being decided by just a couple of points, we tend to focus on those misses. But if you look at the big pictures, more teams have improved from the line in recent history.
So the next time Arinze bricks one off the shot clock, take a deep breath. The national champ usually doesn't rank very high in FT percentage. Or send him my way. I can teach him everything I know. Just don't make me lift weights with him beforehand.