Researchers Examine Who's Better At College Basketball's Free-Throw Line March Madness is here, and college basketball is in the spotlight. When it comes to making free throws, who is better: College players who would eventually go pro, or players who would never go pro?

Researchers Examine Who's Better At College Basketball's Free-Throw Line

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It is March Madness so let's imagine the following scenario. It's a close game, and it comes down to the last 30 seconds. Your team has to make a free throw. Who do you want at the line? Your best player, right, the one who's going to be a star in the years to come in the NBA? Well, you might want to think a little more about that. To explain why that might not be the case, we've got NPR's social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam in studio.

Hi, Shankar.


MARTIN: All right. So it's the last 30 seconds. The game's on the line, as we have established. Obviously, the best player is going to be at the line. Right?

VEDANTAM: That's what I would have said, Rachel. Obviously, the best player should be at the line. Except, there's a catch. I was speaking with Mattie Toma some time ago. She's a Ph.D. student in economics at Harvard. She's also a basketball fan. She grew up in Lexington, Ky., and followed the University of Kentucky in the NCAA tournament. She recently analyzed some 2 million free throws taken by NCAA players and also followed the players who made it into the pros, the NBA and the WNBA. She found something curious.

MATTIE TOMA: The college players who would eventually go pro were more likely to miss free throws in the final 30 seconds of a close game than the college players who would never go pro.

MARTIN: So wait. The players who are supposed to be the best, the ones that are likely to go professional, are really bad at throwing free throws?

VEDANTAM: They're not really bad at throwing free throws, but they're more likely to choke under pressure. And it gets more complicated than just saying what you should do is put your weaker players on the free throw line. Because in general, the players who are going to make it into the pros are actually better players. In general, they're going to make free throws more often.


VEDANTAM: Toma has a theory. When you put college players who are destined to go pro at the free throw line in these high-pressure situations, the pressure on these players is actually higher than it is on other players.

TOMA: The players are playing with their future career in mind. And so when they're at the line, they care about the game itself. They care about the win for their team. But it seems very likely that they're also quite concerned - well, will this hurt or help in terms of getting me into the professional levels? And so you can kind of really sympathize with that when you're watching the game.

MARTIN: So these players just have so much more on their mind, they're not focusing on the task at hand.

VEDANTAM: Exactly. It's not just the game. It's not just their team. They're thinking about the next several years of their career, and all the pressure is on them. Now, as I said, better players in general do better than worse players. But better players are also more likely to see a greater decline in their performance relative to weaker players. I asked Mattie Toma what the practical implications of this study were, Rachel. And she actually had a piece of advice that I don't think most college basketball fanatics are going to like very much. She says when your best player, in a clutch situation, misses a free throw, try and be a little sympathetic.

MARTIN: That's hard to do when your team is losing. OK. Shankar Vedantam is NPR's social science correspondent. He's also the host of a podcast that explores the unseen patterns in human behavior. It is called Hidden Brain.

Shankar, thanks so much.

VEDANTAM: Thanks, Rachel.

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