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Should Virginia basketball be worried about its free-throw line woes?

Low free throw percentages aren’t encouraging, but don’t panic over a small sample of games

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: NOV 10 Hall of Fame Series - Florida vs Virginia Photo by David Jensen/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Virginia Cavaliers are off to a hot 2-0 start this season, but by no means do they look like a perfect basketball team so far. One sore spot is the team’s poor free throw shooting, a worry perhaps accentuated by recent history with last year’s roster struggling from the line down the stretch. The Cavaliers have struggled from the line in the early going, shooting a meager60.3 percent on 63 attempts this season. That mark ranks 286th of 363 NCAA teams as of November 12.

Why have the Cavaliers struggled so much from the line so far? And should we expect this trend to persist going forward?

Who’s to blame for free-throw struggles?

On paper, this problem should’ve been solved based on roster changes entering the 2022-23 season. The Cavaliers did shoot just 70.3% from the line last year, 237th in the NCAA, but the departure of Jayden Gardner (69% FT in 2022-23) and Ben Vander Plas (51%) from the frontcourt should result to some addition by subtraction in that department. However, this positive effect hasn’t kicked in in the early going.

Quite a few of UVA’s free throws have come from the frontcourt this season, with freshman Blake Buchanan leading the team in attempts from the line with 20. Buchanan’s made 11 of those 20 attempts for an underwhelming 55% — but his counterpart bigs haven’t done much to help, either. The frontcourt’s attempted 36 free throws combined in 2022-23 and made just 21, good for a 58% free-throw percentage. In comparison, last year’s frontcourt shot 64.7% for the season.

The guards aren’t exactly pulling their weight either, as we’ve seen some small-sample uncharacteristically poor shooting from the usually knockdown Isaac McKneely and Reece Beekman. McKneely’s just 4 for 6 in the early going, and Beekman’s just 7 for 11 — two players you wouldn’t expect to be sitting below 70 percent from the line.

It’s taken a team effort so far to record such a surprisingly low mark from the free-throw line. The NCAA average free-throw percentage last season was 71.4%, but only one of the eight Cavaliers with at least one free throw attempt this season (Jake Groves, who’s 2-for-2) even cracks the 70% mark at the stripe.

There’s a lot of randomness in early-season shooting numbers

If you’ve found yourself wondering how persistent this team-wide dip in free throw performance is, the answer is: it probably doesn’t matter all that much. Sure, it might not match the perception us fans have formed from watching torturous late-game bricks at the line, but early-season free throw shooting really doesn’t have much of a relationship with end-of-year free throw shooting.

This conceptually makes sense: a college basketball team plays 30+ games over the course of a full season, and we’ve only seen 2 of them so far in Virginia’s case. There’s still a few dozen more games for Virginia’s true free-throw skill to tease itself out from early-season shooting variance. In fact, a regression analysis of all 363 teams from the 2022-23 season demonstrates that free throw shooting performance in the first two games of a season explains just 16% of the variance in end-of-season free throw percentage.

Sure, sometimes bad early-season free throw shooting is indicative of a larger problem. Minnesota’s free throw percentage of 53% through two games last year was an early warning sign for an NCAA-worst 61.9% season-long percentage. But 35% of teams which got off to an even worse start than the Cavaliers have through two games — below even that putrid 60.3% mark — finished the season above NCAA average from the line.

While we’re discussing poor free-throw shooting variance, it’s also worth pointing out Virginia’s uncharacteristically high three-point percentage: UVA’s current 42.5% clip from beyond the arc would’ve led the NCAA in 2022-23. But three point percentage through two games is even less predictive than free throw percentage of end-of-season marks, explaining just 13 percent of the variance in end of season three-point percentages.

However, with that qualifier in place, there’s still reason to be encouraged by the good three-point shooting in the early going just like there’s still reason to be apprehensive about Virginia’s poor free throw shooting. Of the 31 teams which shot at least as well as that 42.5% clip in the first two games of last season, 68% finished above the NCAA average from beyond the arc.

For what it’s worth, the regression models fit to the 2022-23 season project Virginia to finish the 2023-24 season at a very respectable 35.0% from three and 70.2% from the line. Coincidentally, Virginia finished 2022-23 at exactly 35.0% from three and 70.3% from the line. So maybe we shouldn’t expect anything to change at all; meet the new roster, same as the old roster.

Anyways, the point is ultimately a little bit moot: knowing that Virginia will regress to the mean at some point as jump shooters doesn’t mean you shouldn’t feel angry about watching the Cavaliers brick clutch free throws or that you shouldn’t celebrate Jake Groves and Isaac McKneely shooting the lights out from three. But it’s worthwhile to understand just how inherently random early-season shooting statistics tend to be.

Or maybe Groves will keep up his 71% three-point percentage all season. That would be nice.