With hemming and hawing at an all-time high following Michigan missing a zillion free throws against Minnesota, the same old platitudes about not being able to hit free throws costing you in March started to be bandied about. They made me wonder if Michigan hasn’t already paid a price.
Michigan is currently shooting 63.8% from the free throw line, good for a stinky #342 ranking per Kenpom.com. Historically, Beilein’s Michigan teams have significantly-to-overwhelmingly outperformed D1 average FT%, but we will consider the current D1 average FT% of 71.5% as our “NO LONGER UNACCEPTABLE” number.
I have neither the interest nor the capability to prognosticate how an increase in Michigan’s FT% would translate to how their offense works or how games would have been affected in the big-picture, but I did think it would be interesting to take a look at how end-game FT shooting affected the outcomes in Michigan’s closest games.
I anecdotally decided to look at the last 5 minutes of games, as that is when, in my household, missing the front-end of a 1-and-1 goes from a “C’mon man!” to a war crime. I chose to define close games as games where the winning team has a win% of less than 90% at any point in those last 5 minutes. Hopefully this will give us a peek at when and if not shooting D1 average FT% cost Michigan potential paths to wins when they lost or easier wins when they won.
Tier 1 - No Reasonable Argument FT% would have Changed Anything:
VCU, OSU, vs Purdue, MSU
Not going to go through these 4 games individually, but if it’s here it means changing Michigan’s free throw percentage does not lead to a significant difference in the magnitude or ease of victory or chance at a win, probably because Michigan didn’t take any free throws or they hit the ones they took at a D1 average level already.
Tier 2 - Better FT% would have been Nice but Likely Doesn't Change Outcome:
Technically this game doesn’t satisfy my standards as Purdue was never less than 90% to win during the last 5 minutes but I counted it anyway. The only free throws taken in the last 5 were when Zavier Simpson had a chance to cut the Purdue lead from 5 to 3 with 19 seconds left and went 0-2. Purdue was already in the double bonus and is an excellent free throw shooting team, so Michigan was almost certainly cooked regardless of the outcome of Simpson's FTs.
Matthews missed a front-end and went 1-2 on another 1-and-1 before Eli Brooks hit 2 FTs to send the game to overtime. If Matthews hits 1 more FT, Michigan potentially wins in regulation, but that would have potentially bumped Michigan from 3-5 to 4-5 end-game FTs, and over the 71.5% standard. Simpson and Matthews combined to shoot all 6 Michigan free throws in overtime, and only managed to hit 1 of them. However, neither player went to the line with less than a 6 point lead as Michigan coasted to an easy victory in the extra period.
Tier 3 - Better FT% Plainly Improves End-game Prospects:
After Moritz Wagner canned a 3 to go up 6 with 3 minutes remaining, Michigan’s only points the rest of the way would come from 2-4 FT shooting, with Eli Brooks and Charles Matthews each splitting a pair. Matthews’s attempts came while down 2 with the shot clock turned off. Had Michigan managed to go 3-4 during this stretch, it would have forced LSU to make a game-winning shot or go to overtime. Instead, Michigan was forced to foul, and Abdur-Rahkman missed a wild attempt on the final play.
Michigan shot 4-8 across the last 5 minutes of the game, 2-6 before MAAR nihilistically went 2-2 to win the game in regulation. Bumping Michigan up to 4-6 FTs almost certainly gets them a win in regulation without any low-percentage inbounds plays needing to go off.
Here’s a dude that will never miss ANY clutch FTs!
Michigan shot 2-6 across the last 5 minutes (including 4 misses from Abdur-Rahkman, the FT hero vs Maryland) and the way this one played out, you have to figure any additional makes would have gotten them the win in regulation. Michigan proceeded to shoot 2-5 in the overtime period. 3-5 or better would likely have had them shooting more FTs to maintain a small lead rather than needing MAAR to hit a dramatic layup-and-1 for the win. ...maybe things worked out for the best.
I only observed 3 games this year where improving Michigan’s FT% to D1 average level would have made an undeniable impact on the final possessions, and Michigan managed to go 2-1 in those games regardless. In the game they lost, barring a FT% increase to 100%, the best Michigan could have hoped for was forcing overtime.