North Carolina guard, Cameron Johnson, hits the ground with a smack after a nasty foul from Duke competitor, Zion Williamson. Johnson steps up to the foul line as the ref passes him the ball, eager to earn his team two “gimme” points.
As the camera pans out behind Johnson, the sea of craziness behind the hoop is electric. Duke’s student section, the Cameron Crazies, is buzzing with energy and excitement, dressed head to toe in royal blue. Hands wave in every direction, heads bob up and down arrhythmically, and thundering screams take over the arena.
“BRICK. BRICK. BRICK. BRICK.”
Johnson performs his free throw ritual: two dribbles, flip the ball back to himself, one dribble, align his feet, elbows up. Shoot.
BANK. The ball deflects off the rim as the Cameron Crazies erupt in screams of celebration. Hoots, hollers, and high-fives between the students are payment for their efforts. Their hard work has paid off! They have successfully distracted the free throw shooter!
Johnson tries to clear his mind, and again steps up to the line. The Crazies return to their shenanigans and commotion, determined to produce the same result. Two dribbles, flip the ball back to himself, one dribble, align his feet, elbows up. Shoot.
Free throw distractions: they come in all shapes and sizes, with individual student sections priding themselves on their uniqueness in the art of diversion.
But do they really work? Do players really shoot free throws better at home?
The Importance of Free Throws
It is almost impossible to overemphasize the importance of free throws, both to players and teams. If a player only makes four baskets per game, but can add four free throws to their total, they are now a double-figure scorer. A stellar free throw shooting team can add large amounts of points to the board from the foul line, creating a very difficult obstacle for opponents to overcome.
Free throws are also notorious for making or breaking a well-fought game, especially in the world of college basketball. For instance, take the semifinal game of the 2019 March Madness tournament. Virginia and Auburn had battled hard the entire game, with Auburn pulling ahead at a score of 62-60. With six-tenths of a second left on the clock, Kyle Guy was fouled from behind the three point line. Three free throws, 70,000 fans on their feet inside U.S. Bank Stadium, and six-tenths of a second left.
Guy made all three free throws to send the Cavaliers to the national championship game with a 63-62 victory over Auburn. Virginia went on to win the championship – for the first time in program history. Without ice running through Guy’s veins while standing on the free throw line, this would not have been possible.
The Conventional Wisdom
The conventional wisdom of the general population is yes — free throw shooters can be distracted and teams shoot free throws better at their home courts.
People believe this to be true due to a variety of reasons.
At home, a player has the familiarity factor. They are practicing on their courts and shooting free throws on the same exact hoops. A coach can make their team shoot 50 free throws per practice to build up repetition on these nets. After practicing so many, the motion of taking a free throw can turn into muscle memory. If shot continually on the same basketball hoop, some believe muscle and visual memory could work together to improve accuracy in this same location.
Others believe shooting free throws better at home to be thanks to the home court atmosphere. Players enter a game with a familiar arena, packed to the brim with their fans, peers, friends, and family. Players recognize mentally that they are in a place of support, with the majority of attendees rooting for them and hoping the best for them. This could provide an extra edge of confidence necessary to consistently put the ball through the net while standing on the foul line.
The largest contributing variable to the assumption of shooting free throws better at home is a team having their own student section. When shooting free throws at home, the background behind the net is full of still students with their hands raised gracefully in their air for good luck. They are as silent as can be, while they internally pray for a point scored. They do not frantically wave their hands and arms, shout obscenely, nor jump up and down erratically. There is no air of distraction and a player is able to focus on their one goal: making the shot.
The opposing team, however, does not receive quite the same luxury. The passion and hard work of the “sixth man” on the home team is thought to take a large toll on the opposition. In college, high school, and NBA basketball, the sixth man is the fans attempting to influence the game by cheering and chanting for their team of choice. Or… relentlessly aiming to distract and throw-off the away team.
Sixth man clubs began in college basketball, where deep crowds of students gather to chant for their team and torment the visiting team. Many wear matching shirts and outfits to appear even more numerous and unified. The sixth man sections are well known for intimidation tactics to distract the opposing team and their creativity in chants. Some well-recognized sixth man groups include Duke’s ‘Cameron Crazies’, Virginia’s ‘Hoo Crew’, and Michigan State’s ‘Izzone’.
While all these beliefs held by the common basketball spectator are logical and understandable, they are simply not true.
With the assumption of players shooting free throws better at home being so widely accepted, I wanted to look at the raw statistics of free throw percentages to see if this was a myth or legend. More specifically, I focused on the 15 teams composing the ACC in their 2018-2019 season: UVA, Boston College, Clemson, Duke, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Louisville, Miami, UNC Chapel Hill, NC State, Notre Dame, Pitt, Syracuse, Virginia Tech, and Wake Forest.
The free throw percentages for all home, away, and neutral games, per team, were collected from the first 20 games of the 2018-2019 season. A neutral game was defined as a game played between two teams at a location not favoring one team or the other. For example, a neutral game played between UVA and Duke could be played in the Florida State arena. Neither team is close to home, and thus it is assumed that one team is not benefitting more than the other thanks to “home court advantage”.
The average home, away, and neutral free throw percentages were calculated for each team by simple mean calculations: m = (sum of terms) / (number of terms). The overall averages from the 2018-2019 ACC season were determined by taking each team’s individual averages, combining them, then finding the overall mean.
From my calculations, the overall home, away, and neutral free throw shooting percentages (FT%) were as follows, respectively: 0.7272, 0.7061, and 0.7373. At first glance, the distracting spectators at away games seem to have succeeded, with the away FT% being the lowest.
It is true that 0.727 (home FT%) is greater than 0.706 (away FT%)… but is this statistically significant? Statistical significance is defined as the likelihood that a relationship between two or more variables is caused by something other than chance. In order to test for significance between these two values, a t-test was performed.
A t-test allows for comparison between the average values of two data sets (in this case, home versus away free throw percentages) and determine if the difference is significant. For more background on running a t-test, please see Statistics Solutions. The null hypothesis for this analysis was that there would be no statistical difference between the home and away free throw percentages. i.e., m1= m2. A two-tailed independent t-test (heterogeneous) was utilized because two different groups were assessed by the same measure (how many free throws were made per game). A two-tailed T-test was run at the 0.05 p-value level.
The calculated p-value from this data set was .218423, which is greater than the p-value level of 0.05. Thus, the results are not significant and we fail to reject the null hypothesis / the null hypothesis is accepted.
In normal language, this means that based on my analysis, the assumption that players shoot free throws better at home is not true, simply fiction, and a myth.
It should be recognized that the average neutral free throw percentage was the highest overall, but it also proved to be not significant after statistical analysis.
Taking a Closer Look at Virginia – An Outlier
The acceptance of the null hypothesis (that there is no significant difference between home and away free throw percentages) was for all the ACC teams as a whole, on average, in their 2018-2019 season. However, when looking at the data on a more individual basis, this does not always hold true.
After running a t-test for the University of Virginia, home of the Wahoos, it proves to have a statistically significant difference between home and away free throw percentages. A p-value of 0.003539 was obtained, which is lower than the p-value level of 0.05, thus we reject our null hypothesis.
So why are the Cavaliers such worse free throw shooters on the road? Why do they thrive on their home court in John Paul Jones (JPJ) arena?
This could be contributed to a variety of factors outside the scope of this analysis, such as decibel level, size of student section, or key players’ shooting percentages.
However Ty Jerome, star guard for the Cavaliers who helped bring home the 2019 national championship, has a theory of his own for why the Hoos thrive in free throw shooting at home. He contributes the excellence at home to coach Tony Bennett’s intense free throw shooting practice agenda.
“We had a free throw ladder,” said Jerome. “Every single day after practice, the two people near each other on the ladder, which was a wooden board that had a list of everybody’s name, would play against each other in a free throw competition.”
The competition consisted of each contestant shooting 30 free throws, and whoever made the most of out 30 was declared the winner. If the winner was underneath on the ladder, he would jump up. If the person that won was above his opponent on the ladder, he would stay where he was and play the person above the following day. The reward for being at the top of the ladder was being excused from cardio training for that day.
“I think the way we practiced free throws made us so good at them at home,” said Jerome. “Not a day went by where I wasn’t shooting at least 30 free throws in the JPJ. We were all motivated to make every single shot so we wouldn’t have to do sprints. The ladder allowed for some friendly competition and continuous repetition of free throw shooting.”
The common assumption of most basketball spectators is that teams shoot free throws better at their home court. A variety of reasons are thought to contribute to this, such as familiarity factor, supportive fans, and minimal distraction. While this assumption is both understandable and widely accepted, it is simply false.
Based on an analysis of the 15 teams composing the ACC in their 2018-2019 season, there is no significant difference between home and away free throw shooting percentages.
Student sections across the nation will choose to ignore this data, and relentlessly continue to try to distract away teams. They will decorate themselves in their school’s colors, bring props, yell at the top of their lungs, and full-heartedly celebrate when an opponent misses a free throw. They will believe that they truly are the sixth man on the court.
Statistical analysis proves that there is no difference between home and away free throw percentages for teams in the ACC, but the hearts of dedicated fans will still choose to believe otherwise.