There’s a common understanding that free-throw shooting percentage in college is a strong indicator for how well a player will shoot from the 3-point arc in the NBA. Keeping this in mind, it may not be unreasonable to assume that there’s at least some sort of positive correlation between the two. However, upon further analysis, that doesn’t really seem to be the case.
Nebraska’s free-throw shooting percentage has been utterly woeful this season. Of 353 NCAA schools on sports-reference.com, Nebraska ranks 348th in free-throw percentage. If there is a strong, positive correlation between free-throw shooting percentage and 3-point shooting percentage, then Nebraska would also be one of the worst 3-point shooting teams. This was true early in the year, with Nebraska shooting 21.2% through the first two games of the season, the worst of all teams recorded by sports-reference.com.
However, Nebraska has improved in the last few weeks and has shot significantly better from the 3-point line. It now maintains a 3-point shooting percentage of 34.2%, which ranks 140th in the nation.
So, if there’s a strong positive correlation between 3-point shooting percentage and free-throw percentage, then Nebraska’s current just-about-average 3-point shooting percentage would be a complete anomaly. And, compared to the rest of NCAA basketball, Nebraska would be significantly above the trendline and bucking the correlation. Here’s what the data shows:
Instead of a strong positive correlation between the two variables, the data actually shows a weak positive correlation. This indicates that, while the two are tangentially related to each other, they’re hardly predictive. There are some teams that are good free-throw shooters and poor 3-point shooters. At the same time, there are plenty of teams which are good 3-point shooters but poor free-throw shooters. Nebraska falls into this latter camp.
Is Nebraska a significant outlier? No, not really. Here it is on the graph:
While Nebraska is slightly better than expected from the 3-point line, according to its free-throw percentage, it’s by no means an outlier. And it’s also important to note that much of Nebraska’s recent uptick in 3-point shooting percentage is due to lights-out shooting in the last five games. Regression is possible for Nebraska at this current juncture, and it may shoot anywhere from 27% to 33% on the year. At the same time, its current 3-point shooting may be the new normal, and it could maintain these numbers throughout the year or maybe even improve.
Something that’s also important to note is that Big Ten play probably will not significantly affect Nebraska’s 3-point shooting percentage. While teams are always subject to cold shooting nights, good 3-point defense isn’t necessarily made by making an opposing team miss shots, rather by keeping them from taking those shots in the first place.
“There will be a roughly 1-2% difference between the teams currently in the top and bottom 20 of opponents’ 3-point percentage,” statistician Ken Pomeroy noted in a blog on his website. “Teams have much more control over how many threes their opponents shoot than how many they make.”
For head coach Fred Hoiberg, he may be experiencing some deja vu. In his first year with Iowa State, his team shot 36.8% from the 3-point line at a frequency of 37.4%. Nebraska, meanwhile, is shooting 34.2% from behind the arc at a similar frequency of 38%. This similarity helped lead Iowa State to a 16-16 record, which may be just around what Nebraska is hoping for this year. Both also play in strong conferences.
The Huskers were expecting little from conference play this season, and Iowa State went 3-13 in the Big 12 in Hoiberg’s first year. If Nebraska’s hot streak regresses, and it shoots somewhere around 31% from the 3-point line, then results may dip with it.
With Nebraska’s 3-point shooting percentage improving, it might’ve been hopeful that its free-throw shooting percentage would also improve. However, that should not be expected. Nebraska might improve, and as a result, its 3-point shooting percentage might appear slightly more in-line with the data. Equally as likely is that Nebraska’s 3-point shooting percentage will decrease.
The science behind the free throw has been rigorously researched. For a shot seemingly so easy, it’s strange that more players aren’t able to hit it more consistently. SUNY Brockport published a 95-page report describing whether or not mental imagery has a significant impact on free-throw shooting. That report indicated that mental practice alone did not have a significant effect on free-throw shooting, but that practice and mental imagery were the best option.
Whether or not Hoiberg is engaging in these practices are unknown, but he’s certainly trying his hardest to will his team to do better.
“We shoot them [free throws], I don’t know what’s going on,” junior guard Jervay Green said after a laugh in a press conference after the defeat to Southern Utah. “We shoot them a lot, every day actually, but I guess that’s just how it is.”