A big topic of discussion immediately following Kentucky’s 56-55 loss to UConn in the Final Four Saturday night was how the Wildcats went just 4-of-12 from the free throw line in what wound up being a one-point loss. It was the second-worst performance from the charity stripe in any Final Four game in history (minimum five attempts).
There’s no doubt the missed foul shots cost the Cats in a game that was close throughout, as seven of those misses came with the score within two points, including one by DeAndre Liggins with 49 seconds left that would have brought his team within one.
But how unlikely is it that Kentucky could have “choked” so significantly at the charity stripe with so much on the line? Extremely unlikely. Given the players that shot the free throws and their percentages entering the game, the numbers show that UK’s performance from the line was extremely improbable, having just a 0.65 percent chance of happening by random chance!
Let’s start by looking at the Wildcats who shot free throws in Saturday’s game, along with their season-long free throw percentages entering the game.
Assuming free throws are independent from one another and that each player’s true chance of making any free throw is accurately represented by his season-long free throw percentage -- reasonable assumptions given that unlike other basketball shots, free throws involve no defense and are pretty much the same shot each time -- we can calculate the probability of Kentucky making any given number out of the 12 foul shots the team took on Saturday. These numbers are summarized in the table below.
The probability that these Kentucky players -- given the number of attempts each player had -- would make four or fewer free throws on 12 attempts is 0.65 percent, or less than seven in a thousand. (It bears mentioning that this is the probability of this performance in a particular game; obviously, the chance of this happening is greater if you ask the question of how likely it is to happen in any game of an entire season, tournament, etc.)
There was a 97.0 percent chance that Kentucky would have made at least six of those 12 free throw, which -- keeping everything else constant -- would have given them more points than UConn at the end of the day. Even if you assume that made free throws by Kentucky early would have changed the whole structure of the game, an average performance would have made a considerable difference in such a tight ballgame. The most likely outcome would have been UK making nine foul shots, which obviously would have significantly improved the Wildcats’ chance of winning.
Clearly, the biggest offender is Terrence Jones, who went 0-of-5 from the line despite making nearly two-thirds of his free throws this season. Under the same assumptions as above, the likelihood of a 66 percent shooter going 0-of-5 on a specific set of attempts is 0.46 percent, or less than five in a thousand! In other words, Jones’ performance from the line is essentially the reason for Kentucky’s highly unlikely free throw woes on Saturday.
All in all, a statistically rare performance from the free throw line in the Final Four on Saturday against UConn -- one that would happen about seven times out of 1000 by random chance -- ultimately cost the Wildcats a chance to play for the national title on Monday.