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There is hope yet for Rutgers from the foul line

A strong second half performance helped seal the victory over Illinois and inspired hope moving forward.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Rutgers Catalina Fragoso-USA TODAY Sports

No. 19 Rutgers entered Sunday’s game against no. 13 Illinois shooting just 57.3% from the free throw line, which was near the worst of 357 Division I teams. It’s been an issue with the program for years and last season they finished just 333rd in all of college basketball by shooting only 64.5% from the charity stripe. The season before was even worse at 63.7% (341st).

The last time Rutgers was even an average free throw shooting team was during the 2013-2014 season when they made foul shots at a clip of 70.3% (162nd).

Head coach Steve Pikiell has said several times over the years that he receives emails often regarding the team’s struggles from the free throw line. Throughout the preseason, Pikiell stressed that improving in this area was a top priority. However, through the first five games Rutgers was actually shooting worse from the line than usual.

The first half on Sunday against the Illini was no different, as the Scarlet Knights made just 2 of its first 8 attempts from the charity stripe. RU was playing from behind the entire opening frame and seeing them miss freebies put frustrated fans on the edge.

Then something strange happened. Rutgers took over the game and scored 54 second half points in large part due to a sterling performance from the foul line, outgunning Illinois 91-88. For a team that had made just 59 of 103 attempts entering the game, this was both an stunning and inspiring development.

The Scarlet Knights made 21 of 26 free throw attempts (81%) in the second half and finished the game making 23 of 28 (82%). For the game, Rutgers made 25 of 36 attempts for 69%, which was their second best shooting night from the line this season. However, the best performance against Syracuse involved far less attempts (14 of 18 for 77.8%).

Four players led the way from the foul line, as Jacob Young made 7 of 8, Paul Mulcahy was a perfect 6 of 6, Ron Harper Jr. made 5 of 6 and Geo Baker was 3 of 4. All of the free throw attempts from this group came in the second half aside from Young who ended the first half making 2 of 2.

Rutgers got into the bonus early in the second half and made Illinois pay dearly. It also kept them from getting too close down the stretch even as the Illini made several three-pointers.

“We shot the ball really well from the foul line to kind of wrap up the game,” Pikiell said.

A real key for Rutgers moving forward is getting those four players to the foul line so they can make an impact on the game the way they did Sunday.

This season through six games, Young has made 19 of 25 attempts for 76.0% while Mulcahy is 13 of 17 for 76.5%. While it’s surprising that literally the only thing that Harper Jr. has struggled with this season is foul shooting, having made just 15 of 24 for 62.5%, he did shoot 70.8% last year so he should only get better. Baker only had 2 attempts before this game after missing most of four contests to start off this year, but he is a career 76.1% shooter from the line in his three previous seasons at Rutgers.

The point is that four of the seven core rotation players on this team are pretty good free throw shooters. Getting these players to the line needs to be a priority and Mulcahy has been proficient at doing so with the 56th best free throw rate in college basketball at 70.8%, yet another useful part of his versatile skill set.

On the other hand, Montez Mathis (3 of 7), Myles Johnson (1 of 3) and Cliff Omoruyi (0 of 2) struggled once again from the line in this game. Mathis is tied with Young for the most attempts this season at 25, but he has only made 48.0% of them. There is hope Mathis can improve as this season progresses after shooting 66.1% from the line last season. Johnson is only shooting 57.1% but is the rare case in that if he can even come close to maintaining that current level, it would be a marked improvement after shooting 37.7% for his career before this season. Omoruyi has made just 6 of 16 for 37.5% from the line in the early going, but hopefully can improve as he gets more comfortable to the college game.

After the Illinois game, Harper Jr. made sure fans knew that they were not alone in their displeasure towards RU shooting so poorly as a team from the foul line. He said, “Missing free throws is frustrating. We work on free throws all the time. It was frustrating to not see them go down at the start of the game. We did a great job bouncing back and sealing the win with free throws.”

An encouraging stat is that Rutgers has shot its best from the charity stripe in its two closest games this season in wins over Syracuse and Illinois. Perhaps this team rises to the occasion and is more focused as the competition increases in difficulty, but whatever the reason they’ve shown they can perform well from the free throw line when it’s most needed. There should be hope that this team will improve and ultimately shoot the best as a team from the foul line by seasons end than they have in many years.

If Rutgers wants to win the Big Ten title, they need to take advantage of free throws as much as possible the rest of the way. It’s not the most important factor to success, but it’s certainly one of several.

Harper Jr. explained the team’s mindset is “(If you can) get to the foul line at the end of the game, you have a chance to close it out and that’s what you have to do. At the end of the day, they are free with no one guarding you. We just have to keep doing a better job, keep working on it and we are going to improve. We are frustrated too like everyone else at home watching it. We are just going to keep getting better at it.”

If that happens, the frequent sound of foul shots tickling the twine would be music to Rutgers fans ears.