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How Important Is Getting To The Free Throw Line? Very. (A Four Factors Discussion)

November 23, 2011

If you've followed Riddick & Reynolds a good bit over the years, you've no doubt seen me reference the Four Factors. They are, as Dean Oliver wrote, the four most important factors in the course of a basketball game in determining success.

Most of the time when you examine the four factors of any basketball game, you'll get a clear sense of who the better team was on a given night. Usually the winning team has shot a higher effective field goal percentage, had fewer turnovers and rebounded the ball well.

Usually.

When examining the game against Texas, however, the Four Factors chart looks a little bit different than your typical chart:

NCAA Basketball Stats

var ssChartWidth = 580;
var ssChartHeight = 300;
http://statsheet.com/charts/chartlets/2011/11/23/mcb_games_2011_11_21_texas_74_nc_state_77_138627.js

As you can see, Texas actually had a slightly higher effective field goal percentage, a higher offensive rebounding percentage and ended up with a fairly small turnover percentage advantage.

But take a look at that last column: Free throw rate. Free throw rate is calculated by dividing the number of free throw attempts by the number of field goal attempts, and as you can see, State clobbered the Longhorns in this regard. It ultimately proved to be the decisive factor in the game.

The Pack wound up with a free throw rate of 100%, meaning for every field goal attempt State hoisted toward the basket, they matched it with an attempt at the free throw line. Texas, by contrast, threw up more than twice as many shots as attempted free throws.

The end result of this disparity was a whopping 14-point difference in made free throws, accounting for the difference in the final score and then some.  The advantage at the line was enough to offset Texas' advantages shooting the ball and on the glass.

NCAA Basketball

var ssChartWidth = 400;
var ssChartHeight = 300;
http://statsheet.com/charts/chartlets/2011/11/23/mcb_games_2011_11_21_texas_74_nc_state_77_114240.js

The abundance of trips to the free throw line may have gotten lost in all the discussion about the 28-2 run and the incredible comeback, but clearly the abundance of trips to the FT line, more than any other of the statistic, ultimately decided the game in State's favor.

In year one of Gottfried's tenure, State is not yet talented enough to merely overwhelm teams. They're going to have to manufacture wins, much like a "small ball" baseball team has to manufacture runs through timely base running and bunting. One way State can do that is to manufacture points at the line like they did against Texas, and they'll need to continue doing so the rest of the year.

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