NCAA Tournament

Hoops 101 | The cold, hard facts on hot streaks

You’re a University of Kansas fan (and if you’re not, just play along), it’s Saturday night and time is running out in a tight Final Four game against Ohio State.

Who do you want taking that last shot? The player with the hot hand who’s been burning up the net?

The notion that players go on hot streaks — in which making one shot increases the chance that they will make another and then another — has been debated for nearly 30 years.

Researchers in Germany this month essentially argued that the more players scored, the more they subsequently scored.

Their paper, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, did a statistical analysis of the 26 scorers in the country’s first division volleyball league for the 1999-2000 season. The paper concluded that 12 of the players had “hot-handed” scoring streaks that were not due to chance alone.

So, you want the hot hand to take the shot? Not so fast.

In 1985, Cornell University psychologist Thomas Gilovich published a study in Cognitive Psychology that analyzed, among other things, the shooting records of the Philadelphia 76ers and the free-throw records of the Boston Celtics.

What he found, statistically, is that sometimes runs of one shot after another are simply, well, random, like flipping a coin 100 times and getting tails nine times in a row. Flipping tails so many times in sequence doesn’t mean you’ve got a “hot hand.” Getting one tail and then a second tail does not increase your chances of flipping tails a third time. Sometimes, the coin just flips that way.

To be sure, Gilovich said this week from Cornell, players often feel like they’re on hot streaks. They may sense that making one shot and then another actually increases their chances of making a third and maybe a fourth. He recognizes that fans feel it, too. But hitting one shot does not increase the chances of another shot being made, he said.

People see the streaks, but what they quickly forget are the misses between shots, the number of balls that hit the rim before another shot is made.

“The bottom line is that people occasionally make several shots in a row, maybe quite a few in a row,” he said. “Sometimes they do the opposite. When that happens, you certainly feel different. … But you don’t shoot a higher percentage, and that was established in all sorts of ways.”

In 2009, University of Chicago economist John Huizinga — who also acted as NBA star Yao Ming’s agent through much of his career — did more than confirm Gilovich’s data. He gathered 200 times the amount of data.

Gilovich looked at 48 home games and a total of 3,800 shots. Huizinga gathered data from all teams over six NBA seasons, 2002-08, a total of 900,000 shots.

Not only did Huizinga find that making one shot doesn’t increase the odds of making the next, he found that the odds of making a second shot after a successful shot actually go down.

A guess as to why: Confident, or overly confident, players get cocky and take bigger chances by taking more difficult shots. Often, they find themselves shooting from farther out, or forcing themselves into trouble. He also found that the time between shots decreases, meaning that after one successful shot, players often rush the next shot.

Then — clang — they miss.

“What it looks like is that players


they’re hot,” Huizinga said. “They think they can make more difficult shots where, in fact, they can’t.”

Huizinga put numbers to it: Overall, when players missed a shot, the odds on average were 50.2 percent that they would make the next shot. But if they made the first shot, the odds, on average, slipped to 46.7 percent that they would make their next shot. He also found that the player on the second shot is less likely to be fouled, probably because the player is taking a shot from an unexpected spot.

Which to Gilovich makes KU’s strategy rather clear. Instead of giving the ball to the player who thinks he has the hot hand, he said, “you win by getting the ball to the best shooter in the best spot.”

Thomas Robinson. Two feet from the basket.