by Conor Gereg
Luck is difficult to measure. Considering the many variables that take place each second on a basketball court, this task can become insurmountably difficult to quantify.
However, one facet of the game that’s a pure chance is your opponent’s success at the free-throw line. Save for simply not fouling, there’s very little that can be done to control how an opponent performs. Per KenPom, the national free-throw average in 2020-2021 was 71%, which is almost squarely in the center of a 5-year average across the sport.
5 year FT % trend:
2020-2021 – 71.0%
2019-2020 – 70.8%
2018-2019 – 70.7%
2017-2018 – 71.4%
2016-2017 – 70.4%
When your opponent shoots below this, consider yourself lucky. Inversely, equally as many programs were unlucky enough to see the opposite.
Today we’ll look back at which teams got “lucky” and which saw their fortunes soured by nothing more than pure chance.
The Right Side of Luck
The Rams saw their opponents shoot a combined 63.6% last season, third-worst in the nation, trailing Prairie View (61.4%) and Dayton (63.4%). This proved to be a significant difference-maker for a team that found themselves on the cusp on an NCAA tournament berth. Take into account that the year previous, 2019-2020, CSU’s opponent’s shot nearly ten percentage points higher (72.4%). The Rams will once again need luck on their side if they hope to remain among the top teams in the Mountain West.
The fourth luckiest team in the nation last year hailed from the SEC where the Aggie’s saw their opponents convert free throws at a dismal 65.5% rate. Even with this advantage there still wasn’t much to cheer about considering Buzz Williams group finished with an 8-10 record. 2019-2020 was quite the opposite for A&M, a season that saw opponents shoot a staunch 75% from the charity stripe.
A&M has found itself on both sides of luck’s fortune though a loaded 12-game non-conference schedule will give Williams’ team an immediate test in 2021-2022, a gauntlet where some luck would be helpful considering their fall schedule is highlighted by a trip to Hawaii in the Maui Invitational.
Opponent free-throw shooting is far from the biggest headline in West Hartford where the Hawks are digesting their long-term fate which has them destined for Division III following a decision by both the university’s President and the Board of Trustees. Regardless, Hartford’s inaugural NCAA tournament appearance came with a bit of luck; opponents shot just 66.6%, the 13th worst in the nation. Let’s give John Gallagher’s group credit, however. Over the final three games of the season opposing teams shot 75%, well above the 71% national average. Despite some generously putrid shooting performances from opponents early on, the Hawks most certainly earned their NCAA berth in late February.
Among the 347 Division I programs that competed last season, Purdue was the 43rd luckiest when it came to their opponent’s futility at the line. The Boilermakers’ windfall seemed to run out by tournament time as Matt Painter’s team saw opposing teams shoot a blistering 82.4% over the final three games in March. Purdue is a surefire consensus top-20 team in 2021-2022; another year of “luck” will have them ascending into the top-10 seeing as Painter and co. return their top eight scorers from an 18-10 season.
Even luck couldn’t quite push the Johnnie’s over the hump last season as they were the 45th luckiest group considering opponents netted just 68.1% of FT’s last year. This number is nearly identical to the year previous where opponents shot 68.2%. Mike Anderson and the Red Storm return a bevy of talent, headlined by Julian Champagnie, and another year of fortune will most certainly have them in the post-season conversation among the Big East’s heavyweights.
The Unluckiest of them All
The Ducks didn’t let ill-fated fortune get in the way of another post-season run. Oregon saw their opponents knock down the 12th best FT percentage (76.4%) yet Dana Altman’s group clawed their way to a 21-7 overall record and a KenPom finish of 16. Altman, Oregon’s all-time winningest coach, and just 10 wins away from 700 overall will surely guide the ducks’ reign among the PAC-12’s best whether lady luck is on their side or not.
The Wolverines earned a top seed in March’s tournament despite seeing teams shoot the 15th best percentage in the nation. Conversely, teams shot a below-average 69.3% the year before when Michigan finished a 23-5 record. Fortune or misfortune, Michigan finds a way to win even in a Big 10 that’s poised to dominate again. Not even chance can derail what Juwan Howard has assembled in Ann Arbor.
The 24th unluckiest team when it came to opponent free-throw percentage, Cincinnati saw themselves just a win over Houston in the AAC championship to salvage a forgettable year that culminated in the severing of ways with Head Coach John Brannen. Opposing teams converted 75.2% of free throws in 2020-2021 which helped capsize a disappointing 12-11 season. There’s new life in the Queen City where Wes Miller appears equipped to right the mast back to respectability.
Finishing as the 28th most “unlucky” team in 2020-2021 was a Sooner group that saw the opposing bench covert nearly 85% of their free throws over the season’s final three games. Despite this, the season, Lon Kruger’s finale, can’t be considered anything short of a success considering Oklahoma finished 16-11. Porter Moser takes over a program that’s accustomed to winning regardless of circumstance though we’re sure he hopes opponents shoot far worse in 2021-2022.
Kansas State was the 53rd most unlucky group last season in a loaded Big 12 where KSU’s opponents shot a season-long free throw average of 73.8%. Adding insult to injury, the Wildcats closed out their season against Baylor in Rd. 2 of the Big 12 tournament where the Bears shot 92.9%, the final nail in the 2020-2021 coffin for Bruce Weber’s crew. The conference is once again positioned to produce 6-7 tournament teams and the Wildcats will need far better luck should they hope to be included in that discussion.