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.