It is one of those old clichés that just won’t go away, but it needs to. As Cyclone fans we hear it more than most teams; “Iowa State lives and dies by the three.” This, of course, is how people analyze team’s that utilize the three point shot more than others because there is the assumption that there will be “off nights” shooting and when there are, the team will probably die (lose) instead of live.
My objection to the comment starts long before it is applied to three point shooting. Does anyone ever say that VCU “lives and dies” by forcing turnovers? The Rams force turnovers on an astounding 29.3% of opponent possessions which leads the country. Have you ever heard an analyst say, “Indiana lives and dies by getting to the free throw line.” The Hoosiers are third in the nation in free throw rate at 48.8% (FTA / FGA – more on this later as it applies to Iowa State). Or did Bill Raftery note at any moment on Sunday that Michigan lives and dies by taking care of the ball? The Wolverines have the lowest turnover percentage in the country at 15%.
Of course not, the cliché is rooted in an analyst’s opinion of the three point shot instead of, “Hey, maybe this is just what this team is really good at. As such, when their strength isn’t being performed at a normal level their chances for success are much lower.” I’ll give credit to Travis Hines for pointing out that line of thinking on one of his podcasts a month or so ago.
But, whether you want to buy what I’m selling on the pointlessness of the cliché or not, I’m here to show you how the Cyclones—one of the country’s top three point shooting teams—have avoided “dying by the three”. Overall, Iowa State has had very few of those down nights from behind the arc this season.
In 29 games this year Iowa State has made seven or more three pointers in all but four games but more importantly, the team three point percentage was less than 33.3% on just eight occasions this year—just three of those instances have come in conference games. The accuracy of 33.3% is important because of how that equates to shooting 50% from inside the arc.
Because of the extra point when outside the arc, shooting 33.3% from there is the exact same as shooting 50% from two point range. That is essentially the “Mendoza Line” for shooting accuracy from each area of the floor.
Below is the game by game chart for each conference game and how Iowa State’s possessions have been used with the three pointer and how well they shot it. These are the game by game numbers and not the season averages as the games went along.
The first point is that ISU has had just one dreadful night shooting the ball from three point range and that was in Ames against Baylor when ISU was 4/24 from three point range and still won. The other two conference games below 33.3% were at TCU and at Texas Tech where they split both games.
For the percentage of possessions with three point shots attempted and made there are some peaks and valleys as the season has gone along. But, when you remember that these are game by game performances the Cyclone three point shooting has been remarkably consistent. In 13 of the 16 conference games Iowa State has made a three point on 12% of their possessions or more. In the two Kansas games and the last game at Oklahoma are the only three games where ISU shot a three ball on more than 43% of possessions. That is a high number, yes, but it is closer to normal for Iowa State and it was essentially a vital part of the game plan both times against Kansas.
Iowa State has lost some games this year but it has never really been because they “died” by the three.
Free Throw Importance
You may or may not be familiar with the term “free throw rate”. It is one of the “four factors” but is typically the most forgotten/least important of them. It is simply a measure of free throw attempts divided by field goal attempts and shows the propensity for a team to get to the free throw line. You can also measure it by taking made free throws divided by field goal attempts which accounts for the team making them and not just getting to the line. Because I am me I use both measurements to cover the bases better…or try to.
It has been somewhat widely publicized how rarely the Cyclones get to the line on a consistent basis. In conference play the Cyclones are just 9th in FTA/FGA at 34.1%. When you look at FTM/FGA it gets better because the Cyclones shoot free throws so well (240/318 in conference play for 75.5%) and the Cyclones chime in at 5th with a rate of 25.8%. Considering how well ISU shoots free throws getting to the line would be more beneficial especially because of all of the other benefits, starting with getting the opposing team in foul trouble.
Anyhow, I started down this road because I was looking at some Cyclone defensive numbers trying to make some sense of things with trends here and there. When opponents in conference play have registered a FTA/FGA rate of 34% or better Iowa State is just 2-7 (7-10 when you add in non-conference games). However, when you switch the free throw rate calculation to FTM/FGA a more concrete trend emerges. When opponents notch a rate at 22.9% or better ISU is 0-7 in conference play and 2-10 overall (wins came against Drake and Yale).
For all Big 12 teams, when an opponent throughout this year has a FTM / FGA rate of 22.9% or better those teams are 47-117 for a win percentage of 0.287. When you pare that down to conference games only all Big 12 teams are 35-61 in games when their opponent has a FTM / FGA rate of 22.9% or larger for a win percentage of 0.365. When you remove the seven losses and zero wins by Iowa State from that list the win percentage increases to 0.393, clearly Iowa State appears to have a bigger problem overcoming opponent free throw rates when they are making free throws.
This of course led me to think about the old Tim Floyd mantra of attempting to make more free throws than your opponent attempts. The Cyclones have done that nine times this year and are 8-1 (the loss was last Monday versus Kansas) and opponents have also done this just nine times this year and ISU is 2-7 in those games (TCU on the road and Florida Gulf Coast at home are the wins).
That highlights the importance of getting to the line, making them, and not giving your opponent the same luxury. That clearly went awry in Norman but in conference games this year Iowa State defensively has the 3rd best FTM/FGA by their opponents in the league at 23.8%. That happens largely because not fouling is one of the defensive keys that Hoiberg seems to employ (hold the jokes about not contesting shots close enough to be able to foul). The defense hasn’t been spectacular or even close, this year but opponent free throw rate is one area where the Cyclones have done well, or at the very least the team has struggled to win games where they didn’t keep opponents off the line.