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Daniel Wilco | | December 12, 2018

Why the free throw is the most important shot in college basketball

USA Today Sports Images Duke has shot more free throws per game than any DI team this century Duke has shot more free throws per game than any Division I team this century.

There is no more valuable shot in college basketball than the free-throw attempt.

That's the conclusion after we looked at every Division I team’s performance since 2001 (a total of 6,051 individual seasons), and a trend stood out: teams that shot more free throws won more games. Teams could shoot dozens of 3-pointers a game or none with virtually no impact on their win percentage. The same goes for 2-point field goals. But free throws? That’s where we saw the difference.

No one shoots more free throws than Duke

Since 2000, there have been 3,948,821 free throws shot by Division I schools in 191,148 games, for an average of 20.7 per game. Obviously the range among all teams is much greater. 

No team that has been in Division I every year this century has shot more free throws per game than Duke. Since 2001, the Blue Devils average 23.8 per game, of which they’ve made 72.2 percent. During that span, Duke has gone 529-119, for a win percentage of 81.6 — the third-highest in Division I.

The lowest single-season average came in 2013, when Grambling shot only 12.8 free throws per game (hitting just 58.7 percent of them) and went 0-28 on the season. The highest was in 2014. Manhattan averaged 30.9 free throws per game (hitting 66.3 percent), and finished the year 25-8, making the NCAA tournament for the first time in 10 years.

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Shoot more than 20.6 FTs a game

That relationship — more free throw attempts equals more wins — isn’t isolated to the best teams.

Of the 355 teams we looked at, the median for free throws per game is 20.6. Teams that fell below the median had an average win percentage of 48.9 percent. Teams that were above it won 54.6 percent of their games. That’s a pretty significant difference.

And it works the other way as well.

Of the 10 most successful teams (based on win percentage) since 2001, only one shot fewer free throws than the median (Michigan State).

RK School W% FT% FTA/G
1 Gonzaga 82.36% 72.23% 23.32
2 Kansas 82.33% 69.64% 22.31
3 Duke 81.64% 72.22% 23.79
4 Kentucky 76.52% 69.60% 22.50
5 North Carolina 73.84% 69.95% 22.95
6 Arizona 73.35% 73.49% 22.88
7 Memphis 73.21% 66.94% 23.56
8 Florida 72.47% 69.87% 20.63
9 Syracuse 72.04% 68.15% 21.31
10 Michigan State 71.95% 71.95% 19.89

As a group, those 10 teams average 22.3 free throw attempts per game while hitting 70.4 percent. The average for Division I teams this century is 69.3 percent from the line. 

Six of the 10 least successful teams fell below the median. As a whole, they averaged 20.03 free throw attempts while hitting 67.5 percent, a big drop off from that first group.

MORE: 5 college basketball teams who have overcome early struggles and found their groove

In a previous article, we took a look at the best overall free-throw shooting teams this century, combining the number of free throws each team made per game with their percentage from the line. The number one team in that study was Villanova, which happens to have won two NCAA championships in the past three years, in two very different fashions.

There was one constant for those two wins: In both NCAA championship games, Villanova shot more free throws than its opponent.

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