Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Free Throws: Not So Free

As bad as Shaquille O'Neal was at the line, Purdue looks just as bad.

303. That's what Purdue free throw percentage ranks out of the 344 teams in Division 1 basketball.

61.7. That's what Purdue's free throw percentage amounts to 11 games into the season.

Let's look at each players statistics.

Byrd: 100% (8-8)
Smith: 81.8% (9-11)
Hummel: 80% (32-40)
Jackson: 73.2% (41-56)
Barlow: 69% (29-42)
Marcius: 55.6% (5-9)
A. Johnson: 48.5% (16-33)
Lawson: 31.8% (7-22)
T. Johnson : 28.6% (8-28)
Carroll: 25% (1-4)

The consensus out there is that Hummel, Smith and Jackson are Purdue's best free throw shooters. More of what concerns Purdue fans, however, are the ones that are shooting so poorly and also what the root of the problem may be. Terone Johnson, a guard, is shooting below 30 percent from the line. Let me say that one more time. Terone Johnson is shooting below 30 percent from the line. Has anyone ever heard of a guard playing Division 1 basketball shooting this low of a percentage? It's not like he's shot 4 free throws this season either - he's shot 28. How about redshirt freshman Anthony Johnson? Arguably the second best stroke on the team (the first being Ryne), is shooting less than 50 percent.

Remember when Barlow was a freshman and Jackson was a sophomore? They were terrible free throw shooters. Everyone was criticizing their strokes and how they could never improve in that area. Obviously none of them are going to be Ray Allen, but they have improved considerably every year at Purdue and because of this, they're not a liability when they're out there during crunch time. That is a positive for Terone, Anthony and even Lawson. That people before them that have had similar struggles - albeit not to this extent -  and have turned out to be serviceable from the line. A majority of fans are criticizing Terone's technique at the line, and while I tend to agree, let's give him some time to work on his stroke before we write him off. He was a huge scorer in high school and shot a reasonable percentage from the line. Terone needs to keep gathering confidence on the court - something that he has been doing slowly but surely - and that will help him from the strike. There are plenty of shooters out there with poor form and technique, but they always seem to put the ball in the bucket. One name that comes to mind is John Shurna. Not a great stroke by any means and most would label it unconventional, but he can fill it up and happens to have a solid free throw percentage.

What do the struggles at the line mean for Purdue come Big Ten play, or even the NCAA tournament?

Here are last year's Big Ten standings and how they fared at the line in the Big Ten.

1. Ohio State                        71.2%, 7th
2. Purdue                              74.0%, 4th
3. Wisconsin                          85.1%, 1st (1st nationally)
4. Penn State                         73.7%, 5th
4. Illinois                                76.6%, 3rd
4. Michigan State                   71.1%, 8th                
4. Michigan                            68.1%, 11th
8. Northwestern                     72.4%, 6th
9. Minnesota                          69.0%, 10th
10. Iowa                                69.7%, 9th
11. Indiana                             77.0%, 2nd

It looks like success and percentage at the free throw line are not related. Perhaps with a bigger sample the results would be positively correlated, though. For a team as talented as Ohio State last year, they didn't need to be good from the line because they were so good in so many other areas. Talented teams don't need to lead the conference in free throw percentage, assist to turnover ratio and so on, they beat you with talent.

Lets look at the teams that got to the Elite Eight last year in the NCAA tournament.

North Carolina 67.2% (233rd Nationally)
Kentucky 71%  (107th)
Connecticut 76.3%  (11th)
Arizona 74.6%  (32nd)
Kansas 67.9%  (210th)
VCU 71.5%  (97th)
Butler 72.6%  (68th)
Florida 66.9%  (240th)

These are some surprising numbers - looking at how much some of these teams struggled and their place nationally. As stated above, most of these teams were extremely talented and didn't have to produce at the line in order to win games and advance. Some teams like Connecticut were talented and excelled at the line and that brought an eventual National Title. As you can see, though, most of these teams, even the less talented ones (Butler), didn't do too well at the line (compared to the rest of the country).

For Purdue this year, they don't have the kind of talent where they can just show up and win. They have to win the categories that often go unnoticed. They have to win the turnover battle, stay competitive in rebounding and take advantage of easy points at the line - something they aren't doing at the moment. Purdue doesn't need to shoot 80% from the line, but they do need to improve from their season average of 61.7 a clip - that's for sure.

Purdue. This is what a free throw looks like.

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