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Free Throw Woes Slowing Duke

Duke isn’t getting to the line like it usually does

NCAA Basketball: Duke at Wake Forest
Feb 25, 2020; Winston-Salem, North Carolina, USA; Duke Blue Devils forward Wendell Moore Jr. (0) shoots a free throw during the second half against the Wake Forest Demon Deacons at Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum. 
Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

The struggle to sustain superior unit effectiveness, yielding a winning record and another NCAA bid in a near quarter-century long streak, continues to bedevil the 2021 Duke basketball team.

Reliance on young, unseasoned players surely contributes to the squad’s difficulties. Youth has not squared well with the vagaries of scheduling amid COVID-19, when rhythms, scouting reports, and expectations are subject to abrupt change. This year that’s been true in other programs dependent on one and done players, deprived by COVID of the grounding influence of preseason time together and other routine stabilizing experiences.

In Duke’s case there’s also been a lack of a strong post presence. More tellingly, the program’s trademark defensive toughness has been only sporadically evident. Watching the teams score seemingly at will in the Devils’ 93-89 loss to Notre Dame was disconcertingly unfamiliar.

Through Feb. 9 Duke’s 2021 opponents averaged 73.5 points per game, the fourth-most in Mike Krzyzewski’s 41-year tenure.

A Feb. 13 visit to Raleigh provided a welcome tonic and a defensive uptick as the Wolfpack scored only 53 points to Duke’s 69 and got to the line eight fewer times. That dropped opponents’ scoring to a still-hefty 72.3-point average, tied for sixth-worst under K.

Yet the statistic most revealing of Duke’s weakness this season remains team free throw attempts. Not only those tried and made by the Blue Devils but those amassed by opponents.

Krzyzewski’s habitually hard-nosed teams get to the line more frequently than their rivals, an advantage built on aggressive play at both ends. Twenty-three times over the course of Krzyzewski’s previous 40 seasons Duke enjoyed at least 200 more free throw made than opponents.

This year is only the fourth Duke has reached the line less frequently than opponents. In fact, just once, during the 1982 season when the Blue Devils were 10-17, was there a greater disparity in made attempts (minus 85 then, minus 56 after NCSU).

Of Krzyzewski’s five NCAA championship squads, only the surprise 2010 champs earned fewer than 297 more free throws than opponents. K’s NCAA titleists averaged 8.0 more foul shots than the teams they faced across 39- and 40-game seasons.

Of Krzyzewski’s dozen Final Four teams, only three enjoyed a margin of fewer than 123 more free throw converted compared to their opponents.

Duke Free Throws Made Compared To Opponents Since 1980-81 Season
(2021 Through Games Of Feb. 13)
FMA Edge Free Throw Differential By Season (FMA)
400+ 1992**(460), 1999* (405)
300+ 1990*(371), 1993 (311), 2001** (301), 2015** (325)
250+ 1991**(297), 2000 (296), 2006 (293), 2009 (257), 2016 (298), 2018 (265)
200+ 1984 (240), 1985 (231), 1986* (220), 1994* (239), 1998 (234), 2002 (225), 2004*(201), 2008 (206), 2012 (207), 2019 (224)
100+ 1981 (188), 1988* (135), 1989* (123), 1997 (126), 2003 (185),2005 (178), 2007 (162), 2010** (150), 2011 (171), 2013 (125), 2017 (149), 2020 (116)
0+ 1987 (31), 1995 (23), 2014 (25)
0- 1982 (-85), 1983 (-28), 1996 (-14), 2021 (-56)
** NCAA Champion.
*Final Four.