The Free-Throw Factor: How top teams manage the foul line
Dividing teams into three FT groups: Free Loaders, Free Tweeners, Foul Shooters
Nationwide notes, including Michigan State's fatigue, Kyrie Irving's status and more
An early pick for most improved player, the nation's worst team and my AP ballot
A week ago, college basketball was Duke and everyone else. Now it's just everyone else.
Without freshman point guard Kyrie Irving, who has not played since he injured his toe against Butler on Dec. 4, the Blue Devils are still a good team -- but they are now just one of many good teams. As long as Irving is out (and we still don't know how long that will be; see my Hoop Thought below for an update), the landscape will continue to look this way until the NCAA tournament. With no clear favorite, the little things will become that much bigger in deciding who will be crowned the champion next April.
I've always felt that foul shooting was no little thing, but it is going to be even bigger in the coming months. In a game between teams that are otherwise evenly matched, the free-throw game is often what determines the outcome. To win the necessary advantage, a team has to do more than just shoot a high percentage. It also has to get more attempts than its opponent.
With this in mind, I have assembled 26 top teams and divided them into three categories. The Free Loaders are teams that are making the most of the stripe. The Foul Shooters are really hurting themselves there. And the Free Tweeners are teams that do some aspect of foul shooting well but another not so well.
Besides the obvious category of free-throw percentage, I have borrowed two more from stat guru Ken Pomeroy's fantastic website, Kenpom.com. A team's free-throw rate is the number of free-throw attempts divided by the number of field-goal attempts. Thus, a team with a 50 percent free-throw rate has attempted exactly half as many free throws as field goals. The other category is free-throw-distribution rate, which reflects the percentage of a team's points that have come from the line.
With all three stats, I have also parenthetically included where a team is ranked nationally in that category. Keep in mind the numbers listed below reflect where everyone stood heading into last weekend's games.
FT percentage: 73.5 (56th nationally)
FT rate: 51.0 (13)
FT distribution: 26.8 (17)
Inside the numbers: Notre Dame's top four scorers all make better than 71 percent, and through the first nine games the Irish took 117 more free throws than their opponents. Notre Dame, you may move to the head of the class.
FT percentage: 68.4 (168)
FT rate: 58.7 (1)
FT distribution: 28.6 (3)
Inside the numbers: Past Tennessee teams have settled for too many jump shots, so kudos to this group for doing such a good job driving to the basket. Obviously the percentage needs to be higher, but the main offender is freshman forward Tobias Harris, who has taken more free throws than anyone on the team yet is only making 65.1 percent. The team's primary guards, Melvin Goins and Cameron Tatum, are making 81.8 and 71.8 percent, respectively, so you can expect those two to have the ball in their hands at the end of games.
FT percentage: 78.1 (11)
FT rate: 37.3 (189)
FT distribution: 22.9 (97)
Inside the numbers: Given that this team is loaded with athletic guards with high percentages (nobody on the roster is making under 70 percent), it's surprising -- not to mention disappointing -- that they don't get to the line more often. Something to work on before Big East play.
FT percentage: 76.7 (18)
FT rate: 45.0 (60)
FT distribution: 22.6 (119)
Inside the numbers: The Wildcats are even better from the stripe than these percentages indicate. Their top four scorers, and five of their top seven, are shooting better than 80 percent.
FT percentage: 75.0 (31)
FT rate: 40.7 (133)
FT distribution: 23.0 (91)
Inside the numbers: Somehow the Huskies are shooting a high percentage despite going 14-for-24 (58.3 percent) in their big win over Michigan State. (They were 17-for-19 the next day against Kentucky.) The big fly in the ointment is sophomore forward Alex Oriakhi, who checks in at 55.9 percent.
FT percentage: 74.2 (43)
FT rate: 42.3 (93)
FT distribution: 21.3 (175)
Inside the numbers: The Blue Devils' signature stat over the years has been their ability to make more free throws than their opponents have attempted. Through their first nine games this season, they made 213 while their opponents have attempted 182. (Of course, the only way this is possible is if the referees are cheating.) Even so, sophomore center Mason Plumlee's 41.2 percent clip is a potential problem.
FT percentage: 72.8 (62)
FT rate: 46.0 (52)
FT distribution: 24.5 (56)
Inside the numbers: Memphis fans still smarting from the nightmare of 2008 might be pleasantly surprised to see their Tigers included on my list of Free Loaders. The numbers will change over the next few weeks because the team's best foul shooter, junior forward Wesley Witherspoon (83.3 percent), is out following knee surgery.
FT percentage: 70.6 (95)
FT rate: 52.0 (10)
FT distribution: 26.2 (22)
Inside the numbers: It's either feast or famine with this bunch. Three starters (Casey Mitchell, Truck Bryant and John Flowers) are over 78 percent, while the other two (Kevin Jones and Deniz Kilicli) are under 60 percent.
FT percentage: 79.7 (4)
FT rate: 27.0 (327)
FT distribution: 17.2 (301)
Inside the numbers: The Badgers' top two scorers, Jon Leuer and Jordan Taylor, have taken more than half of the team's free throws, but as a whole Wisconsin attempted four fewer foul shots over the first 10 games than its opponents. This team needs to take better advantage.
FT percentage: 74.0 (48)
FT rate: 30.9 (293)
FT distribution: 16.3 (314)
Inside the numbers: The Hoyas' Princeton-style offense does not call for a lot of dribble driving, so it's not surprising they're not taking a lot of free throws. Still, the fact that the big three of Austin Freeman, Chris Wright and Jason Clark are all making better than 81 percent should help them salt away a lot of close games.
FT percentage: 70.5 (100)
FT rate: 34.5 (232)
FT distribution: 19.0 (250)
Inside the numbers: It's surprising that the Tigers, who play such an aggressive, up-tempo style, do not do a better job getting to the foul line. In their first nine games, Marcus Denmon hoisted 24 more three-pointers than free throws, but it's hard to fault him, considering he made 51 percent of those three-point attempts.
FT percentage: 70.1 (116)
FT rate: 40.1 (141)
FT distribution: 18.7 (262)
Inside the numbers: This is another Princeton offense that doesn't yield a lot of attempts, but it wouldn't hurt to figure out how to get Drew Crawford to the line more. The kid is making almost 92 percent, but he is only attempting 2.2 per game.
FT percentage: 63.9 (266)
FT rate: 47.1 (40)
FT distribution: 23.6 (76)
Inside the numbers: Most of the blame for the Tar Heels' low percentage ranking goes to John Henson, who made just 14 of his first 40 attempts (35 percent). The best news is that the player who has taken by far the most free throws, Tyler Zeller, is making 75.9 percent. He was 11-for-12 in the big win over Kentucky.
FT percentage: 63.8 (272)
FT rate: 52.5 (9)
FT distribution: 24.0 (64)
Inside the numbers: Trevor Mbakwe needs to spend a lot of extra time practicing foul shooting the rest of the season. He is attempting 8.5 free throws per game, but he is only converting 57.1 percent. Kid's leaving a lot of cheese at the line.
FT percentage: 63.4 (275)
FT rate: 46.4 (47)
FT distribution: 23.0 (90)
Inside the numbers: Paris Horne's 42 percent clip is weighing down the team's overall percentage, but it doesn't help that two other players among the top six scorers, Malik Stith and Malik Boothe, are both shooting under 69 percent.
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