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Free throws didn't cost Kansas the 2003 NCAA championship: A convincing argument


I was perusing through KenPom.com on Tuesday (imagine that) and stumbled across something I thought was extremely interesting.

As most everyone around here knows, Kansas went 12-for-30 from the free-throw line in the 2003 national championship game against Syracuse, with the Orangemen going on to win the game, 81-78.

KU made just four of 17 free throws in the second half (23.5 percent), an occurrence that Ken Pomeroy himself later said that, based on chance, had a less than one in 1,000 chance of happening taking into account the 63.3 percent free-throw percentage of KU's shooters coming into the game.


Naturally, everyone blamed KU's poor free-throw shooting for the loss. It seemed obvious to do so.

Chris Bowers has another take on the game. And I think it might just change your opinion on how that championship game was won/lost.

I emailed Chris, and he agreed to let me re-post part of an email he sent to Ken Pomeroy last week. His words are in italics below.

As a Syracuse fan, the idea that Kansas choked always bugged me. Not only does it feels like a swipe at the legitimacy Syracuse’s title, but the numbers don’t hold up. Surprising though it may be, Kansas was actually more efficient from the free throw line than Syracuse that night. Take a look at the play-by-play and box score here.

Kansas went 12-30 from the line, and missed the front end of 2 one-and-ones. Effectively, that is 12-32. However, Kansas also scored 6 points via offensive rebounds on their missed free throws.* So, effectively, Kansas produced 18 points from 32 free throw attempts.

Syracuse went 10-17 from the line. They also missed the front end of 1 one-and-one, and scored zero points from offensive rebounds on missed free throws. So, effectively, Syracuse produced 10 points from 18 free throw attempts.

Kansas: 18-32 for an efficiency rate of 0.5625 per free throw Syracuse: 10-18 for an efficiency rate of 0.5556 per free throw

Thus, Kansas was actually slightly more efficient in terms of effective points per free throw attempt than Syracuse.

The 2003 national title game was actually won and lost at the three-point line, not the free throw line. Syracuse shot 11-18 beyond the arc, while Kansas went only 4-20. Whether or not you consider that to be luck might be another matter. However, as a Syracuse fan and a number cruncher, I feel a lot more comfortable discussing Syracuse’s timely three-point shooting than the illusion of Kansas choking from the line.

  • — Thanks to the magic of NCAA Vault, you can see the three times KU scored off missed free throws here, here and here.


I went back through the box score, and Chris' numbers hold up.

As Chris said in his email to me, "I really think it was about the 3's, not the free throws. People just like to blame free throws because, well, everyone likes to blame free throws."

Thanks to Chris' analysis, I'm already re-thinking my own thoughts on the game that I thought I knew well.


Scruggsy 8 years, 3 months ago

That's one way to look at it... But all these #'s aside, offensive rebounds or not on some misses, if KU shoots near their 63.3 season pct they win it easily...

They lost it at the free throw line.

karkinrich 8 years, 3 months ago

Pretty good find, I can dig it as much as that game hurt. While the free throws were the most painful to watch but the 3pt disparity was a close second, especially in the 1st half. Perhaps a re-match is in store this April!

Michael Sizemore 8 years, 3 months ago

Interesting. Curious - how many times would have KU scored had they not been hacked going to the rim? Appreciate Chris' perspective, but KU lost the game at the stripe. (I'm not taking anything away from the 'cuse - it was a good game plan, especially in light of KU only hitting 40%.) KU choked. If they hit their average it's a seven point swing.

Jesse Newell 8 years, 3 months ago

scruggsy, disposable — I'm just going to play devil's advocate here. If KU would have hit its season average on free throws, it would have made 19 of 30. In a basic way, that's seven more points.

But Chris makes a good point. If KU had made some of those free throws, it also would have lost points because it wouldn't have gotten the offensive rebound and scored on some of those possessions.

Let's say the Jayhawks make the free throws on the three misses I showed in the videos above, plus makes four other free throws to give them their season average of 19-for-30. Yes, KU would have gained seven points, but it also would have lost six points (the three baskets scored on offensive rebounds). Essentially, the Jayhawks would have only netted one extra point. They still would have lost the title game.

What Chris is saying is you can't talk about one aspect of the title game (missed free throws) without at least consider something directly related to it (points gained off missed free throw offensive rebounds). We shouldn't overlook the second part if we are going to make a big deal about the first part.

Pete Haack 8 years, 3 months ago

Interesting argument. Statistics can be bent a lot of ways, especially when playing with hypotheticals. Take the "effective free throw points" example from the article, in which KU scored 8 more points (effectively) from the line.

Because the 'Hawks also shot (and missed) more free throws than Syracuse, they had more possessions that ended with missed free throws, not counting those in which they got offenseive rebounds.

These are possessions that could have ended in 2- or 3-point field goals had players not been fouled, but instead often ended in fewer points from the line. A conservative estimate of 2 points from the field for every 2 free throws missed means 18 more points for KU (versus 7 points for Syracuse), a difference of 11 points that overcomes both the previous argument and the argument that the game was lost at the 3-point line (where SU outscored KU by 7).

Bottom line: they fouled us so we wouldn't score from the field, and we couldn't score from the line.

Either way, I can still feel my stomach dropping each time KU missed another free-throw and hear the reaction of my game-watching friends as we huddled around a 19-inch color television in a dinky apartment living room.

Someone smarter than me (not a stretch, there) can debunk my almost-surely-faulty logic, but I think Mark Twain said it best: "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics."

brian1981 8 years, 3 months ago

I've said this for years.

McNamara bombing us for six threes in the first half and putting us into an 18-point hole ten minutes into the game is what did us in.

With the amount of energy required to come back from that kind of hole against an elite team in the national championship game, no wonder guys were bricking their free throws.

McNamara killed us. Not Carmelo, not missed free throws. It was McNamara's threes that changed the entire complexion of the game.

Scruggsy 8 years, 3 months ago

OK- consider me converted. I guess I can't refute the math.

Frickin' dadgum McNamara...

mom_of_three 8 years, 3 months ago

How many times do you hear commentators, amateaur and professional, both say "the game was lost at the free throw line." Even though shots weren't falling for Ku, and they were falling for syracuse, that can happen any game. But free throws are shots the players control without the opposing player altering it. I can see the logic in the statistics he used above, but you can twist statistics sometimes to show what you want. If KU would have shot their average from the line, I think the game would have went their way. He takes into account the offensive rebounds and points from missed free throws. I mean, who is to say that those rebounds would still not have happened if KU had hit a few more free throws. KU still would have missed a percentage of their shots, as they were a 63% free throw team, and the rebounds and putbacks could have been made from those.

Vic 8 years, 3 months ago

While I'll agree that the 3 pointers had a lot to do with it, I would argue KU was still in he game despite the poor 3 point shooting. The issue is not who scored more points with the free throw shooting, it was that KU had so many attempts at the free throws they missed.

KU was 12-30 = 18 points missed Syracuse was 10-17 = 7 points missed

Game difference was 3 points made by a shot in the closing seconds of the game. I think the difference is obvious. KU lost it at the line.

rse1979 8 years, 3 months ago

I agree with Phaack, Syracuse won the game by putting KU at the line. Not taking anything away from SU, they used that as a gameplan and it worked.

Adding numbers to Phaack's argument, the guys that missed the majority of free throws were Collison, Langford, and Graves (10 for 27). Those same 3 shot 22 for 36 (61%) from the field.

Therefore, those guys generated 1.22 points per shot (44 / 36) on two point shots. On free throws, they generated 10 points off 15 possessions (12 2-free throws; 3 missed 1-and-1s's), or 0.67 points per shot. Granted, this does not take into account three point play opportunities (don't have THAT much free time on my hands).

Therefore, Syracuse was taking away over half a point per possession from KU by fouling., so that was the smart thing to do.

BL 8 years, 3 months ago

One correction: We don't know if Michael Lee's shot would have gone in or not at the buzzer. It was blocked.

kef104 8 years, 3 months ago

Okay, while this new statistical analysis is interesting, it forgets something rather important. First, assume we make our normal 60%. This would add 6 additional points. Now, the argument that all the offensive put backs would be lost is incorrect. We had 3 put backs in 18 missed shots, thus one out of 6. With 6 extra made free throws we would have lost only 1of the 3 put backs, thus we only lose 2 of the 6 points gained from the put backs. The total change in our point out put is 4, which is more than the 3 point loss margin. Looks to me like free throws cost us the game.

jayhawks71 8 years, 3 months ago

Scruggsy, no, you can't dispute the mathematical operations, but you can certainly dispute the rationale for the numbers on which the mathematical operations are applied.

mom_of_three 8 years, 3 months ago

Yeah, what kef104 said. That's what my post is about, except i am not a statistics person. Because the team still could have shot their percentage, and had put backs from misses.

ravenjayhawk 8 years, 3 months ago

Kirk should have been councilled by Coach Williams after the first made 3 to get in his face. McNamara had a lot of open looks from the top of the key during the entire game.

ravenjayhawk 8 years, 3 months ago

Kirk should have been councilled by Coach Williams after the first made 3 to get in his face. McNamara had a lot of open looks from the top of the key during the entire game.

beatrice 8 years, 3 months ago

Right, it was Syracuse's great free throw defense that won the game for them.

MichaelC 8 years, 3 months ago

Here's my take - we lost due to lack of minutes for Keith Langford. Take a look at the points per minute he was putting up in the games leading up and in the short span he played in the championship game. He stays out of foul trouble, he leads us to a victory. 19 pts in 23 limited minutes.

rse1979 8 years, 3 months ago

beatrice, I don't think anyone is suggesting that a team "defends" a free throw; however, teams can make a conscious decision to put their opponent at the free throw line. It's the same thing KU did to Memphis in 2008; just part of the strategy of the game.

phoggyjay 8 years, 3 months ago

I was eight rows back, behind the basket in the KU student ticket section. After the buzzer sounded, we had to fight our way through the Syracuse crowd. Humbling. But 2008 we get a championship and all good. I agree with karkinrich...could be a re-match.

shepdog 8 years, 3 months ago

I agree with 1981. McNamara killed us. Basically I think Roy would never call a time-out when they were making a run. He "always" let his team play through it. That is one of the things I like about Bill is he feels that run coming and he calls a time-out to settle his team down!

puddleglum 8 years, 3 months ago

nah, KU lost at the free throw line. if they made their free-throws, the game wouldn't have been close at the end at all.

but don't feel bad Mr. syracuse, a championship is a championship, even if you did win because we choked. No biggie.

Eric Dawson 8 years, 3 months ago

Jesse -- Bowers is using his stats incorrectly. After reviewing the ESPN play-by-play record of the game, this becomes clear.

First, KU's 1st half FT shooting was close to their season average (8-13, 61% vs 65% for the season), the really horrid FT shooting didn't happen until the second half. (Nick was 2-3 in the first, roughly his 64% season average)

Looking just at the second half as KU was trying to comeback, KU only made one of the three "putbacks" in the second half. Furthermore, SU had 6 rebounds of missed KU FTs in the second half. Bowers has arbitrarily assumed that the made FTs would be of misses KU rebounded, when they could be of misses SU rebounded, meaning the made KU FTs would not necessarily be offset by stickbacks made of misses.

Third, in the last 17minutes of the game, the only players SU fouled that went to the line were Collison and Graves, who were a combined 3-14 (21%) from the line in the 2nd half (5-17, 29% for the game). 9 SU fouls sent Collison (4) and Graves (5) to the line in that time, no one else. They and Langford were the only Hawks consistently hitting their shots, and they were the worst FT shooters, so it was better to foul them to stop their shot if needed, and SU did.

By my figuring, if those two had just hit FTs in the second half at Jeff's 57.6% average instead of the 21% they actually made , even being conservative and giving back the 2 points on the one basket off a missed FT, KU still would have had 4 more points (new total 8 pts - 3 points actually made + 1 more for one of the 1&1s - 2 for the stickback lost), enough for the win.

I have a more detailed analysis, but it's too long for here. I can be reached at ericpdawson@kualumni.org if you're interested.

orangeugladtoseeusagain 8 years, 2 months ago

The game was a classic. Kansas was a very tough team and Syracuse took advantage of every possession. There are many theories on why Kansas lost but to bring them up almost 7 years later is similar to crying over spilt milk. In fact why was the milk spilt, if it was in a sealed container the milk would of never spilt and no one at Kansas would be accused of crying over missed free-throws. Enjoy the night people you had a tough day.

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