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When Is a Free Throw Not Just a Free Throw?

In interviews during the 2012-2013 college basketball season, Marquette Head Coach Coach Buzz Williams has mentioned repeatedly that he’s not sure what his team does well. Maybe nothing. Maybe his team just wins well. Surely, that can’t be it. After all, the Golden Eagles were 20-7 and 11-4 in the Big East as of Feb. 27, keeping it in the race for the conference’s regular season title.

A team in this position must be doing something much better than its opponents. At first glance, Williams is right: It’s not clear what Marquette does well:

Marquette’s highest conference rank in any efficiency stat is sixth, and its overall average efficiency rank is eighth. How could a team with middling stats such as these be fighting for the top spot in one of the nation’s toughest conferences?

It’s simple: free throws. The key is not just getting to the line, but rather how many a team makes relative to the possessions available in a game. This is where we can start to see how Marquette wins.

The table below shows the number of free throws each team in the Big East makes relative to a particular number of possessions. Marquette makes a little more than 25 free throws per 100 possessions, which is second only to Villanova’s 27.5 made per 100 possessions.

But this isn’t the full story. We need to consider how many more free throws a team makes per 100 possessions relative to its opponent. On average, Marquette makes 6.7 more than its opponents, which is tops in the Big East and good enough for 17th best in the nation (FYI: Green Bay, which defeated the Golden Eagles on Dec. 19, is currently 24th in the nation in this statistic).

That’s all well and good, but how does it translate to winning? If Marquette were to make the same number of free throws per 100 possessions as its opponents while keeping its other efficiencies the same, its winning percentage would decline 5.72%.[1] Through 27 games, that amounts to 1.54 games. That would put Marquette at roughly 18–9 overall and 9–6 in conference, or in seventh place—right in the middle.

Let’s look at it a different way. Marquette averages a turnover on 20.5% of its possessions thus far this season and averages 25.6 FTM/100. There have been 14 games in which it had a turnover rate higher than 20.5%. In nine of those 14 games, the Golden Eagles had a FTM/100 below 25.6. They lost six of those nine games (Green Bay was one of them). In the other five games, Marquette had a FTM/100 above 25.6 and won four of those games.

Williams says he’s not sure how this Marquette team wins, as he’s not sure what it’s good at—but don’t let him fool you. He emphasizes getting touches in the paint for a reason: They provide open shots on a collapsed defense and, maybe more importantly, a decided free-throw advantage.


[1] This calculation is derived from results of a previously run regression that looks at how each efficiency determines winning percentage. These results can be provided to the reader if desired.

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