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Anthony Chiusano | | August 3, 2018

How free throw percentages factor into March Madness success

2018 One Shining Moment

Kris Jenkins' shot at the buzzer back in 2016 to lift Villanova to its second national championship in school history will forever be an iconic March Madness moment. But Jenkins may not have been in the position to deliver the game-winner if it wasn't for some clutch Wildcat free throw shooting down the stretch.

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We wondered: How much does free throw shooting really matter when it comes to who cuts the nets in April? We looked at free throw percentages for every NCAA tournament champion since 1985, along with where their mark ranked in the nation and how it compared to the combined NCAA tournament field's average that year. Here's what we found:

  • The combined free throw average of the past 34 national champs is 71.9 percent. Over the same span, the average of every NCAA tournament team combined is 70.1 percent.
  • Two extra free throw conversions per 100 attempts doesn't sound like a resounding difference, but in March, every possession counts. There have been eight one-possession (three-point difference or less) championship game finishes since 1985, and three overtime games.
  • The national champ has shot at least four percent better than its respective year's NCAA tournament field 11 times since 1985, including three of the last five seasons.
  • The largest single-season percentage differentials between the champion and the field came in 2004 (-9.1%) and 2014 (+7.2%), both courtesy of UConn.
  • The 71.9 percent clip posted by the past 34 champs was better than 58 percent of Division I schools last season. A total of 148 out of 351 schools shot at least 71.9 percent from the free throw line in 2017-18, including just 35 of 68 NCAA tournament teams.

1985 Villanova 71.5% N/A 69.6%
1986 Louisville 73.3% N/A 70.0%
1987 Indiana 76.7% N/A 69.9%
1988 Kansas 69.0% N/A 70.3%
1989 Michigan 73.5% N/A 70.1%
1990 UNLV 69.9% N/A 70.5%
1991 Duke 72.6% N/A 68.7%
1992 Duke 74.8% N/A 67.9%
1993 North Carolina 70.6% 63rd 68.7%
1994 Arkansas 68.0% 122nd 67.9%
1995 UCLA 70.9% 57th 70.8%
1996 Kentucky 71.3% 43rd 68.4%
1997 Arizona 65.5% 214th 68.6%
1998 Kentucky 67.5% 148th 68.7%
1999 Connecticut 73.2% 25th 68.7%
2000 Michigan State 73.5% 28th 68.6%
2001 Duke 69.6% 127th 68.8%
2002 Maryland 72.6% 56th 70.1%
2003 Syracuse 69.4% T-163rd 70.5%
2004 Connecticut 62.3% 312th 71.4%
2005 North Carolina 72.5% 54th 70.6%
2006 Florida 74.4% 34th 70.4%
2007 Florida 69.0% 168th 71.5%
2008 Kansas 70.2% 131st 70.0%
2009 North Carolina 75.2% 18th 70.4%
2010 Duke 75.9% 8th 69.9%
2011 Connecticut 76.3% 11th 70.6%
2012 Kentucky 72.3% 65th 72.3%
2013 Louisville * 70.9% T-120th 71.8%
2014 Connecticut 77.7% 4th 70.5%
2015 Duke 69.9% 145th 70.7%
2016 Villanova 78.2% 2nd 71.8%
2017 North Carolina 70.1% 176th 71.7%
2018 Villanova 77.9% 10th 71.9%

*Louisville's 2013 NCAA title was vacated

Villanova's 78.2 team free throw percentage in 2016 was the highest by a national champion since the NCAA tournament field was expanded to 64 teams in 1985. For good measure, last year's national champion Villanova squad finished second on this list of title winners at 77.9 percent.

“We know we can shoot the free throws really well. And if we got to the foul line, it would be to our advantage,” former Villanova guard Ryan Arcidiacono said back in 2016

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Seven of the eight players who received regular minutes on Villanova's 2016 squad shot at a clip above 72 percent. Phil Booth (87.7), Jenkins (84.5) and Arcidiacono (83.6) all reached the 80 percent mark. Last season, the Wildcats boasted four regular-minute players who finished at or above 80 percent on the year.

On the flip side, 2004 UConn stands as the worst free-throw shooting team to win a national title since 1985. The Huskies finished 312th out of 326 schools in the nation at 62.3 percent.

In UConn's national championship game win over Georgia Tech that year, the Huskies went just 25-of-39 from the line. Center Emeka Okafor (4-for-8 from the line) didn't need any freebies that day, though, as he muscled his way to a game-high 24 points and 15 rebounds.

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