At the beginning of the 2010-11 season the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets have a surprising record - one win and one loss. On Sunday, November 14th the team traveled to Old Dominion and suffered a 65-63 defeat marked by a 12-for-26 free throw performance by the Yellow Jackets.
Yellow Jackets head coach MaChelle Joseph marked the loss up to the free throw performance. According to Chris Carlson at the Virginian-Pilot, Joseph said, "You miss 14 free throws on the road, you're going to get beat. I don't care who you're playing. The game was won and lost right there."
This is when you regret being on vacation.
Georgia Tech won its home opener on the 12th against Georgia State 66-56 against the other Division I school in Atlanta - a school squarely in the middle of Division I schools - and then they go to Virginia and cough up the loss. I missed both of those games, so you might ask, "Why write about a game that you didn't see?"
The answer is that it's simply impossible to see every game of importance. In my case, I was in another country and I couldn't have seen either game even if I wanted to, having not so much as internet access. All we can do is examine the corpse and check for fingerprints, having not seen the murder.
So we'll take the head coach's statement at face value and conclude that yes, free throws lost the game. But were there any other games last year where Georgia Tech had a -14 difference in free throws made vs. free throws attempted?
Winthrop (-8): W 63-30
Mississippi Valley State (-8): W 89-41
Miami (-9): W 80-73
Wake Forest (-9): W 52-45
Penn State (-10): W 64-60
Clemson (-11): W 72-58
Savannah State (-12): W 80-51
Wake Forest (-12): W 72-66
Clemson (-13): W 68-53
Georgia Tech won all of those games last year despite the negative free throw differential. Part of the reason is that in many of the games listed above, the Yellow Jackets went to the free throw line about 30-plus times, usually against an undermanned team fouling Georgia Tech out of desperation. Look at the closest game on the list, namely the 68-53 win against Clemson on February 8, 2010. The Jackets went to the line 27 times compared to just 12 times for the Tigers. The Tigers, however, went 10-for-12 at the line, shooting 83 percent at the line compared to Georgia Tech's 14-for-27 performance.
That game was an ugly game, with each team having 25 turnovers. Clemson was actually the better rebounding team, edging out Georgia Tech 38-37 overall in rebounds, and furthermore Clemson had home court advantage. So why did the Tigers lose by 15 points?
Shooting, that's why. The Yellow Jackets had a 52.9 percent effective field goal percentage. Clemson had a 34.1 percent effective field goal percentage, unable to hit the side of a barn with the side of a barn. The Tigers couldn't make up the difference by shooting. They couldn't make up the difference at the free throw line, only visiting 12 times - Georgia Tech had more free throws made than Clemson's free throws attempted total. Everything else was even, and Tech walked out with their second win against Clemson.
Now, look at the box score from the Georgia Tech-Old Dominion game on Sunday. Georgia Tech had an effective field goal percentage of 53.1 percent compared to 44.6 percent from Old Dominion. That's a significant edge, but we all know cases where a team outshot another team but lost the game on the "fundamentals" - boxing out, ball control and of course at the charity stripe.
So where could Old Dominion make up the difference? What about turnovers? Old Dominion had 20 turnovers to Georgia Tech's 23 turnovers. It was a high-turnover game with Georgia Tech giving Old Dominion just a few more chances to score.
Rebounding? Georgia Tech held a minor edge on the offensive glass, with a 43.8 percent offensive rebound percentage compared to the Lady Monarchs and their 42.1 percent rate. However, Old Dominion had 16 offensive rebounds compared to 14 for Georgia Tech - there were another couple of chances for Old Dominion to score, and the final score showed that every chance counted.
Now, we can look at the free throw numbers. It's always difficult to evaluate the contribution of free throws to a game. In order to win games, you not only have to hit the free throws you make but it helps if you're given a lot of free throw attempts, hopefully more than 20.
Each side had at least 20 free throw attempts. Old Dominion had exactly 20, and made 15 of their attempts. Georgia, on the other hand, had 26 and made 12 of their attempts. Most of the time Georgia Tech went to the free throw line for a handout they came back empty-handed. But still, Old Dominion only made three more points at the line, right?
There's an old saying that "two missed free throws equals one turnover". That's definitely true if you miss both shots when you get two. Let's take the saying at face value and add one turnover for every two missed free throw shots and recalculate the game turnovers:
Old Dominion: 22.5
Georgia Tech: 30
Egad. That's a lot of turnovers, or pseudo-turnovers.
Free throws are the odd duck of basketball. Shooting, turnovers and offensive rebounds are, to some degree, something that you can control. If you're good at handling the ball or fighting for rebounds, you can tilt those stats your way. And of course, you can practice your heart out at the free throw line and make your attempts.
But the number of free throw attempts a team receives is something that it *can't* control. The other team has to give those away, where one team gets the opportunity to take advantage of the other team's inability to keep their hands to themseleves. The real sin of missing free throws is that missing free throws lets the other team off the hook for its lack of discipline. This makes the argument that "two missed free throws equal one turnover" more compelling, because if you're not going to make your opponents pay on the court you might as well just hand them the ball.
Did Old Dominion take advantage of Georgia Tech's flaws? They made 15 out of 20 of their own free throws. They did what Georgia Tech wouldn't, and that was the ball game.