The importance of getting to the free throw line

Bob Knight, the legendary Indiana coach slash chair thrower, has a goal for his teams in terms of foul shooting.

He wants his guys to make more free throws than the other team takes.

He wouldn't be a fan of the 2008-09 Cougars.

Take a look at the Top 25 teams in terms of free throws made this year and you'll see a number of national contenders: Connecticut (5th), Oklahoma (6th) North Carolina (10th), and Baylor (19th).

You'll have to go farther down the list to find Washington State.

Much farther.

Where do the Cougars rank? Despite playing 12 games, about as many as you can possibly have at this point, the Cougars rank 316th.

316th.

This despite making 73.2% of their shots from the charity stripe, good for the 47th best percentage in the nation. The Cougars just aren't attempting enough shots: they rank 336th in attempts - the worst of any team that's played 12 games or more this season.

Tempo has something to do with this, obviously. The Cougars' raw numbers are hurt by playing a lower number of possessions this year. WSU is the fourth-slowest team in the nation according to Kenpom.com's adjusted tempo rankings. Less possessions equals less foul shots. So we can't be suffering that much. Right?

Except there's a better way to measure a team's impact from the charity stripe. Free throw rate is free throws attempted divided by field goals attempted. It's a good measure of how much of a team's offense is generated from trips to the line. The Cougars have a FT rate of 24.8 - which, according to statsheet.com ranks 334th in the nation. Ouch. 15.5% of WSU's points this year have been generated from the line, which ranks 320th. If you look at it in terms of free throws made versus field goals attempted, we move all the way up to 314th. Remember, these are tempo-free stats.

Starting to get the picture?

It's bad. Remember those scoring droughts that cost us big against Gonzaga and LSU? Nothing outside of a timeout can disrupt an opponents' momentum like a trip to the line. It stops the game and gives the coaches a chance to yell out a play or some quick advice to the team. And for every two shots at the line the Cougs should, on average, earn about 1 and a half points. That's an easy way to put to rest one of our cold streaks from the field, streaks which were present even with last year's superior talent (remember the road game at ASU?).

Last year's Sweet Sixteen team was the first WSU team of the Bennett era to actually outperform their opponents in free throw rate. It made a big difference. Take a look at this:

 

 

The blue line is us; green is our opponents. Note that the graph ends with last year's team, not this year's. Right now our team is getting beat by opponents 27.8 to 24.8. We're on pace for the lowest FT rate in a decade. And it shows on the court. We're not getting our opposition into foul trouble, we're not stopping big runs and we're not getting cheap points at the stripe.

I'll leave the X's and O's to Tony, as he's much better than I am. What is clear to me is that regardless of how we do it, the Cougs must get to the foul line more. Aron Baynes is more mobile, but in some ways that's helping him draw less contact than he has in the past. The guards our getting into the lane, but are pulling up for jumpers rather than working to draw contact. The senior forwards aren't getting to the line at all - Harmeling and Forrest have less attempts combined (20) than Taylor Rochestie has by himself (24).

A bright spot? DeAngelo Casto and Marcus Capers. Despite coming off the bench and having less playing time than the starters, Casto is tied with Rochestie for second on the team in FT attempts. Now if he could just convert (he's 58.3% on the year), we'd be in business. Marcus Capers is tied for fourth in attempts on the team with 14. That's more than Klay Thompson, a more skilled offensive guard who is getting more playing time.

Back to Bob Knights benchmark: the Cougars have made more free throws than their opponents have taken four times. They're 3-1 in those games. The only loss, oddly enough, was Gonzaga, where the Cougs shot and defended so poorly that the only thing they did well was get to the line.

Meanwhile, opponents have made more free throws than the Cougs have attempted seven times. The record may surprise you: the Cougs are 4-3 in those games. But look a little closer and you'll see it's a flawed statistic. The Cougars' wins were against Idaho, Montana State, Farleigh Dickinson and Mississippi State. Outside of the last team mentioned, there's quite a difference in talent there that free throws can't overcome. The three losses were three of our most painful to date: LSU, Pittsburgh and Baylor. The Cougs simply can't afford many games like that in the Pac-10.

It's simple: If this team is going to finish in the top half of the Pac-10, they have to start getting to the line. Now.

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