NCAA tournament futures: Will it come down to free throws?

February 17, 2022 07:41 PM

As part of our college basketball futures handicapping, we have been profiling current contenders who look most like national champions from the recent past. 

So far key findings include teams with a top-three seed and those having multiple NBA-level players on the roster. 

Gonzaga, Duke, Arizona, Baylor, Purdue and Auburn fit nicely into this criteria, which is why they sit near the top of the board.

Next up, we look to match the free-throw shooting percentage from previous winners to this season’s best candidates. Sure, most college basketball fans understand the importance of free-throw shooting. However, not enough statistical attention is directed toward the threshold championship-level teams must eclipse from the line and if (or how many) teams have been able to overcome these shortcomings and still win a title. 

Bettors need more information than just a team “is good at shooting free throws”; they must know what it means from a quantitative perspective.

This examination of free-throw shooting percentages will be based entirely on a subset of schools that were previously designated as the top contenders. Just another reminder, when playing national championship futures, attention should go primarily to selecting options within a narrow group of favorites — they are the ones that overwhelmingly win the tournament. 

The subset of teams that continue to hold on to their contender status are:

— Gonzaga  (DraftKings 450, BetMGM 450, Circa 479)

— Arizona (DraftKings 800, BetMGM 1000, Circa 850)

— Auburn (DraftKings 800, BetMGM 800, Circa 759)

— Kentucky (DraftKings 1000, BetMGM 1000, Circa 900)

— Purdue (DraftKings 1000, BetMGM 1000, Circa 1000)

— Duke (DraftKings 1200, BetMGM 1000, Circa 1250)

— Baylor (DraftKings 1500, BetMGM 1400, Circa 1300)

— Kansas (DraftKings 1500, BetMGM 1400, Circa 1500)

— Villanova (DraftKings 2200, BetMGM 1800, Circa 2100)

— UCLA (DraftKings 2000, BetMGM 1800, Circa 2700)

— Illinois (DraftKings 2500, BetMGM 2000, Circa 2700)

— Texas (DraftKings 4500; BetMGM 4000, Circa 4400)

— Alabama (DraftKings 5000, BetMGM 4000, Circa 6400)

Michigan has been removed from the list. If it wasn’t for what the Alabama backcourt can offer, the Tide would be as well.

Texas Tech, with a healthy Terrence Shannon Jr., deserves some recognition with this group (DraftKings 3000, BetMGM 3000, Circa 3300). 

Let’s go to the line. 

The comparative data for this analysis is the free-throw shooting percentage for every national champion since 2010. 

The rationale for going back to 2010 is the game has changed dramatically. The last decade or so is when the prevailing philosophy of focusing more on 3-pointers over midrange shots started to take hold. 

More 3-point shots lead to the possibility of fewer free throws being attempted, therefore, making a higher percentage becomes even more important for a team’s total scoring output. 

— Average free-throw shooting percentage of national champions since 2010: 74%

— Median free-throw percentage of national champions since 2010: 74.4%

— Highest individual team percentage: 78.2% Villanova (2016)

— Lowest team percentage: 69.9% Duke (2015) 

Over the last 11 years, just one team, Baylor, won the national championship with a percentage lower than the DI average. 

So far this season, the average percentage in DI is 71.4%. 

Here is how these contenders are doing from the free-throw line:

— Gonzaga: 71.1%

— Arizona: 72.0%

— Auburn: 72.7%

— Duke: 72.7%

— Purdue: 70.6%

— Kentucky: 72.6%

— Baylor: 68.8%

— Kansas: 70.3%

— Villanova: 82.9% (No. 1 in the nation)

— UCLA: 72.5%

— Illinois: 71.3%

— Texas: 75.8%

— Alabama: 71.7%

— Texas Tech: 69.4% 

What to make of this data? 

Don’t overlook the importance of free-throw percentage when doing college basketball futures handicapping. Basically teams need to shoot in the low to mid-70s and be better than the DI average.

With the exception of Baylor and Texas Tech, all of these aforementioned teams fit in the range of the last 11 national champions. Interestingly though, only two squads are above the 74% average.

Keep in mind most teams have about six games left on their regular-season schedule, so there is time for these percentages to change and come closer to the 74%, which was calculated after the regular season. 

This data should be concerning for any bettors thinking about making a national championship futures play on the Bears and Red Raiders. Last year Baylor bucked the trend of a national champion having a higher percentage than the DI average. This year it is happening again and at an even wider margin.

The Baylor squad from the past two weeks doesn’t resemble the one from the first half of the season. Leading scorer LJ Cryer has been out of action for the last five games with a foot injury, Adam Flagler is dealing with knee pain that caused him to miss some action and during Saturday’s impressive win against Texas, big man Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua was lost for the season with a severe knee injury. 

The injury concerns coupled with this dubious free-throw percentage means even at 15-1, there is no need to make a value play on Baylor at the moment. Make a decision on the Bears closer to tournament time when there is more news about Cryer’s status. There is very little chance they can repeat without Cryer. 

Texas Tech is going to be one of those teams that gets billed as a “sleeper” come March. However, the Red Raiders don’t have the profile of a national champion. A Sweet 16 run is a more reasonable expectation.

Villanova’s free-throw shooting is impressive, but the Wildcats are continually being frustrated by larger opposing guards. That’s why they are starting to drift away from the top of the pack. Keep this free-throw percentage in mind if Jay Wright’s team winds up being an underdog in a late Big East tournament game. 

Illinois’ team free-throw percentage is fine. The problem is the 65.2% for star big man Kofi Cockburn. That number suggests a possible hack-a-Shaq strategy for Illinois opponents. 

Like Baylor, Purdue’s current odds combined with a relatively low free-throw percentage and an average defense, at best, should give bettors pause for now. The value isn’t there anymore. And that’s unexpected, considering the core of Jaden Ivey, Trevion Williams and Zach Edey is exactly what to look for when backing a team in this market. 

Trade odds for time and hold off on making any decisions on a Purdue futures play until the Big Ten tournament.

Finding February value 

Looking at these free-throw percentages and odds, there is still some value available. Value at this juncture is more about predicting how the odds will change between now and Selection Sunday. 

That logic places Arizona and Duke in hold status. Their odds won’t change much in the next few weeks, so readdress them based on seeding. 

A bet now on Arizona at 8-1 is almost like a hidden parlay since it includes the Wildcats being a No.1 seed, which is not a given.

Of course, all of these teams had higher numbers earlier in the season, which is why bettors need to build a futures portfolio in the preseason, add on periodically and just tweak it come March. 

For example, bettors who took Purdue and Arizona during the early portion of the season when their odds were north of 25-1 are looking at those tickets differently than those contemplating making a play on them now. 

Less than four weeks away from Selection Sunday, I have Kentucky power rated alongside Gonzaga and Auburn, with little difference between teams in this group. The free-throw percentage plays a role in this rating. There is still some current value for the Wildcats since they have been lurking in the shadows of SEC leader Auburn, which is drawing most of the national attention.

The 10-1 value is starting to erode and won’t be there much longer. That makes Kentucky a time-sensitive bet worthy of a play. 

Don’t be surprised to see Kentucky close behind Gonzaga and Auburn for most national championship futures tickets now that the public’s focus has moved on from the Super Bowl to March Madness.  

The Tigers as well still have some value to offer. Once again it stems from being in the shadow of another team, in this case it is Gonzaga, a squad with a free-throw shooting percentage below the DI average.  

On the other hand, Auburn has a better free-throw shooting percentage and at 8-1, its odds are almost twice as much as Gonzaga’ 4.5-1 offering. 

Auburn, a likely No. 1 seed with a roster composed of multiple NBA-level players and now add in this free-throw percentage, profiles just as much like a national champion as the Zags and soon could be priced similarly.

BetRivers is one of the few books consistently offering futures on the conference of the winning team. Playing the SEC at 3-1 is an option for those bettors less interested in value and more attracted to convenience. Look at this bet like this: you could get a dual Auburn-Kentucky ticket that pays slightly less than just one on Gonzaga. 

The Zags’ odds have set the market all season, and there is very little room to go lower than the current 4-1. These odds make it prudent for anyone interested in taking Gonzaga to consider a rollover moneyline parlay. Going this route would pay out better than 4-1 since Gonzaga in the later rounds won’t be such a prohibitive favorite as it was a year ago.  

Yes, I know all payouts for the tournament would be better by doing a rollover moneyline parlay. That is a debate for another time since there is more work involved than just nabbing a futures ticket and storing it away. In the case of backing Gonzaga, doing the extra work is worth it.

For those searching for a low-cost long shot play before the tournament, this free-throw data brings Texas into the equation. Rather than toss some disposable units on a mid-major that brings more fun than potential to win it all, this power-conference team with a top-10 KenPom defense is available at 45-1.

A partial unit investment on the Horns at this price would be a good hedging asset for any college basketball portfolio.

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