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Defending Free Throws - Wait, What?

No seriously

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NCAA Basketball: Wake Forest at Virginia
Jan 22, 2019; Charlottesville, VA, USA; Virginia Cavaliers center Jack Salt (33) against the Wake Forest Demon Deacons during the second half at John Paul Jones Arena.
Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports

There’s no such statistic, at least not recognized officially. But that doesn’t mean we can’t discuss it. Or be informed by it.

This came to mind as we watched Virginia in action, about to go down to Duke for its first loss of the season.

Much is made of the Cavaliers’ ability to suppress opponents’ field goal accuracy, and understandably so. Only three teams made better than 50 percent of their shots in the Cavs’ first 17 games – Dayton (.543), Maryland (.540) and Duke (.510). Overall UVa allows .378 accuracy from the floor on the year.

There’s more, however.

Virginia opponents hit at a .246 clip from 3-point range, including 2 of 14 by Duke. (Combined with the Blue Devils’ 9-43 on threes against Syracuse, also at Cameron Indoor Stadium, that sealed a two-game Duke run of .193 efficiency on 57 attempts.)

Tony Bennett’s club leads the ACC in field goal, scoring and 3-point percentage defense, and leads Division I teams in 3-point and scoring defense and stands fourth in field goal percentage defense.

What’s not tracked in that impressive blizzard of stats is how opponents shoot against the Cavs from the foul line.

Now, most people would dismiss this as an irrelevant measure, devoid of meaning. A free throw is a free throw. The distance doesn’t change and the opponent doesn’t matter.

Except it’s not that simple.

All sorts of strategy figures in who gets sent to the line. Teams try to avoid fouling certain players, and scheme to make others shoot free throws when time and score are tight. The cumulative burden of the game, physical and mental, affects a foul shooter’s ability to convert – the more he or she has to work, the more difficult to maintain focus and form. The discipline in simply limiting defensive fouls has an effect.

Certainly opposing teams’ foul shooting is not as random a measure as it looks, not when a meticulous coach like Bennett is involved and every angle has been schemed.

Thus Duke was arguably the better team when UVa came to Cameron and won 65-63 last year, aided mightily by the Blue Devils’ 5-11 foul shooting. Which of course was part of the game. Duke’s conversion rate was hampered by a pair of missed one-and-ones and one of two made in a third trip to the line by freshman Wendell Carter (.738 on the year) in the final 7 and a half minutes of an intensely tight game.

This season the Devils trail the ACC in free throw percentage and tough-minded Virginia leads, not only in making foul shots but in keeping opponents from doing likewise. After UVa come Louisville and Virginia Tech in the difference between what they and their opponents make. Worst are BC and Duke with its bevy of freshmen.

This is more than coincidence.

Opponents’ Free Throw Accuracy
Compared To Team Performance
Opp FT% School FT% Difference
.755 Boston College .701 -.054
.725 Florida State .738 +.013
.718 Wake Forest .722 +.004
.714 Notre Dame .741 +.027
.704 Clemson .729 +.025
.695 Pittsburgh .721 +.026
.679 Miami .738 +.059
.677 Syracuse .681 +.004
.675 NC State .701 +.026
.675 Duke .670 -.005
.674 North Carolina .731 +.057
.671 Louisville .753 +.082
.671 Virginia Tech .748 +.077
.667 Georgia Tech .700 +.033
.632 Virginia .769 +.137
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