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The Sky Is Falling....But The Free Throws Aren't

As Iowa State continues to struggle at the line, many fans wonder if this will ultimately be their demise...

Fred Hoiberg pleads with the team to make at least one of their free throws.
Fred Hoiberg pleads with the team to make at least one of their free throws.
Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

When you get to this point in the season, you start to have a pretty good idea of what kind of team you have. We’re already past the midway point of the season, and if your team hasn't already developed an identity or know what type of team they are, it might be too late. Inevitably, people are going to start forming opinions about what their team is, for better or worse, but either way, that’s the point of being a fan, to form opinions and tell everyone why yours are better than everyone else's. Alright, maybe that’s just me, but I digress. The most consistent thing I hear from fans is that ISU needs to start making more free throws if the Cyclones are going to have a chance to make a deep run in March. While I tend to agree with this statement, I’m not one to think it’s their biggest weakness, nor is it something they can’t overcome or improve upon. I personally think rebounding is a bigger issue, and one that’s much tougher to correct, unless of course a couple of the guys on the team suddenly grow like Anthony Davis from age 15-19.

For the sake of this article, I’m going to take a look at the free throws, as that appears to be on everyone’s minds these days. The pulse of Cyclone Nation thinks this team is a legit Final Four contender, and for good reason. All we've been hearing for the last two months from writers and analysts on TV is that we can beat anyone in the country on any given night, and that this team can score on anybody, and as long as we don’t lose focus and play some defense, there’s no reason to think we can’t be one of the last teams standing come March.  However, the rumblings about the missed free throws and the team’s recent struggles at the line are causing some concern as to whether this may hinder the Cyclones in the tourney. I wanted to see how this year’s team stacks up against Hoiberg coached teams in the past. Not only that, but I wanted to take a look at this team compared to the last 10 teams to win the national championship. Ultimately I wanted to see if this team can still continue to win down the stretch if the missed free throws continue (which I don’t believe they will), and if any other recent team that won it all struggled at the line like the Cyclones.

Let’s first take a look at the last 10 national championship teams. Below are the teams, their free throw percentage, and where they were ranked nationally in terms of free throw percentage at the end of the season.

2014       Connecticut (32-8)          77.7% – 4th

2013       Louisville (35-5)               70.9% – 119th

2012       Kentucky (38-2)               72.3% – 65th

2011       Connecticut (32-9)          72.8% – 5th

2010       Duke (35-5)                      75.9% – 8th

2009       North Carolina (34-4)     75.2% – 19th

2008       Kansas (37-3)                 70.2% – 134th

2007       Florida (35-5)                 69.0% – 173rd

2006       Florida (33-6)                 74.4% – 34th

2005       North Carolina (33-4)   72.5% – 54th

Average Rank = 62nd

Average Percentage = 73.1%z

Nothing really jumps off the page looking at those numbers. There’s a three year run from 2009-2011 when each of those teams ranked in the top 20 in free throw percentage. Another three teams that each ranked in the 100’s that were each able to still win a title. And then there’s Connecticut, who is just on another level, as each of their last two championships had teams that ranked in the top 5 nationally. The numbers above indicate that while shooting a high percentage from the line isn't a necessity, it certainly helps, as 7 of the past 10 champions have ranked in the top 75 in the nation, putting them in the top 25% in that category nationally.

How does Iowa State stack up against those numbers?

Iowa State this year is shooting 69.2% from the charity stripe, which is tied for 165th in the country…pretty bad at first glance, but if you take a look at the numbers, it’s not as bad as it looks, especially if only a few more of these dropped. Tweaking the numbers slightly to reflect a few more made free throws this season, which is to say maybe they don’t miss one or two late in some games that were already out of hand, a few unlucky misses turn to good breaks, etc., this season’s team wouldn't be talked about as a bad free throw shooting team.

Hypothetically, if ISU made just one more free throw per game this season, their free throw percentage would jump to 73.5% through 19 games, and they would be tied for 34th overall in the country in terms of percentage.  If that's maybe being too generous, consider if they made just 10 more free throw over the course of those 19 games, they’d be shooting 71.5% and be tied for 89th in the country. Nothing to write home about, but still a vast improvement on the gaudy 165th ranking. The margins are much smaller than you'd think when discussing a team that is seemingly "good" at free throws or seemingly "bad," and a few makes or misses one way or the other could mean the difference between being labeled a poor shooting team, or a good one.

From a historical perspective, this year’s team isn't even the worst free throw shooting team in Hoiberg’s tenure. They're actually right on par with how his teams have shot from the line since he's been at the helm. Seems a bit surprising, as this team does seem to miss more free throws than teams of the past, but maybe that's just because we expect more from this years team, or we feel the need to nitpick. Whatever the case may be, this team should fall right in line with how his teams have performed in the past. Take a look:

2014 -    69.3% – 193rd

2013 -    73.1% – 52nd

2012 -    68.8% – 191st

2011 -    72.1% – 87th

I don’t get the sense by looking at those numbers ISU is necessarily worse off this year than they have been in past years.  I think one of the things that might skew our view of this team is that they just don’t have one guy who misses 5-7 per game by himself. Instead, this team in its typical generous fashion (1st in nation in assists!) spreads the misses around. Each player on the team is guilty of missing at least 1 or 2 per game, so instead of just looking at one guy as the bad free throw shooter on the team, we look of it as more of a widespread problem throughout the team, and it’s more contagious than mumps in an NHL locker room.  It’s not like the Royce White days where he would put up nights of 3-8, 6-11, 1-7 from the line, or flat out not make any at all. As crazy as it sounds, finding video of Royce clanking free throws is harder than it seems. Instead, just imagine the shot below clanking off the rim, I mean, no way that goes in, right?

I don’t believe this team is doomed, as I noted above, I think free throws are something that can be improved upon, and perhaps the team is just inside its own head a little bit. I realize this team and the fans have hopes of winning a national title, but just for fun, I decided to take a look at each of the other three final four teams over the last 5 years.  Just a final four appearance wouldn't be that bad would it? I wanted to see how this year’s team compared to those teams. I also wanted to see if I'm being overly optimistic about this team's troubles at the line and their chance to still make a run while maintaining this current rate, or whether the recent cold spell should be more cause for concern. Take a look at how the other Final Four teams stacked up over the last few years.


Kentucky -          68.2% – 238th

Florida -              66.8% – 275th

Wisconsin -        74.6% – 26th


Michigan -          70.1% – 158th

Syracuse -         67.5% – 234th

Wichita St. -       69.9% – 163rd


Kansas -             69.2% – 171st

Louisville -          68.8% – 192nd

Ohio St. -             70.9% – 107th


Butler -                72.6% – 70th

Kentucky -          71.0% – 111th

VCU -                   71.5% – 97th


Butler -                 73.8% – 27th

West Virginia -    70.4% – 120th

Michigan St. -     68.5% – 192nd

I find these numbers to be more surprising. Only two of these teams were ranked in the top 30 nationally, while most of these teams didn't even crack the top 100. Hell, some of these teams were just downright bad from the free throw line. Take from this what you will, but hopefully it will make you feel a little bit better about the Cyclones chances come March. While I think free throw shooting is definitely something the team needs to improve on, I don’t necessarily think it means they stand no chance of advancing in the tournament, or that it could derail Big 12 title hopes. Even if they continue to struggle from the line, I still like the talent level of this team, and when we're clicking offensively, we can be a lot to handle. Even though this team has struggled at times from the line, it still has found a way to win more often than not. As some of these teams above point out, you don’t necessarily need to be lights out from the line to survive and advance, but it certainly doesn't hurt. In the end, I feel that overall talent will ultimately win out, and ISU has plenty of that.

(All statistics courtesy of