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Why Rutgers will be a better free throw shooting team this season

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There are reasons to believe this will be the most efficient group from the line under Steve Pikiell and possibly by a wide margin.

Rutgers v Maryland Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Rutgers men’s basketball head coach Steve Pikiell has quipped several times over the years that the in-season topic that he receives the most emails about from fans is in regard to free throw shooting. It’s been an issue of consternation among the fan base during his entire tenure. Season after season, the Scarlet Knights have struggled mightily from the foul line.

Even as the program got better in many ways, winning 20 games two seasons ago and winning an NCAA Tournament game for the first time in 38 years last season, Rutgers was completely unreliable and incredibly frustrating to watch from the charity stripe. While their continued inefficiency in this area hasn’t prevented significant progress overall, improvement from the free throw line could raise the ceiling on what this team could achieve this season.

Here is a look at the team’s free throw shooting percentage and national rank in Pikiell’s first five seasons on the banks.

2016-2017: 62.5% (347th)

2017-2018: 65.2% (336th)

2018-2019: 63.7% (341st)

2019-2020: 64.5% (333rd)

2020-2021: 63.6% (331st)

One thing I’m very confident about heading into the 2021-2022 season is that Rutgers men’s basketball team will be a better free throw shooting team. That might not be a ground breaking statement considering how poorly they’ve shot freebies over the years, but I do believe there are tangible reasons to believe it will happen. After reviewing the shooting percentages from past seasons, the floor is certainly low in regard to making improvement, but as we know each year we think they’ll make progress and it doesn’t happen. However, there is substantive reasons to believe that this roster will make considerable progress from the foul line this season.

The two best free throw shooters in recent seasons has been Caleb McConnell and Geo Baker. McConnell shot 80.0% last season and is shooting 79.3% for his career. Baker shot 75.0% last season and is shooting 76.2% for his career. The issue is neither has a good free throw rate, which quantifies how efficient a player is at getting to the free throw line. In last season’s eight man rotation, they ranked 7th and 8th respectively in free throw rate. The two best free throw shooters simply didn’t get to the line nearly enough. Their total attempts from the charity stripe, 52 out of 448 for the entire team, was only 11.6% of foul shots taken by the roster, so their 76.9% combined shooting percentage didn’t make a major impact.

The flipside is that last season, two players who took a large chunk of shots from the free throw line had two of the worst shooting percentages on the team. While Montez Mathis and Myles Johnson were significant contributors in multiple ways, making free throws was an area both struggled with. Last season, Mathis was third on the team with 68 free throw attempts, but he shot just 57.4% from the line. Johnson was fourth with 62 attempts but only made 43.5% from the line. The two players combined to shoot 29.0% of all free throws taken by Rutgers and only made a combined 50.8% of them.

The player who made the most frequent trips to the foul line was Ron Harper Jr., who led the team with 87 attempts and shot 73.6% from the charity stripe. The intriguing part of his game is that he has made significant gains year over year in his free throw shooting percentage. He shot 67.9% from the line on 53 attempts as a junior, 70.8% on 89 attempts as a sophomore and 73.6% on 87 attempts as a junior. We don’t know if he has hit his ceiling yet in regard to accuracy from the line, but if he does make another jump this season, it will be a major plus.

Conversely, Rutgers did lose Jacob Young, who was second on the team last season with 84 free throw attempts while shooting 72.6%. He was mostly reliable from the line and certainly is just one of several areas that replacing Young’s production won’t be easy. However, while he was a slightly above average free throw shooter, Rutgers needs its high volume guards to shoot a better percentage than that. If Baker and McConnell can gain more attempts with Young gone, it will result in a positive gain this season.

In regard to the two other regulars returning from last season, Paul Mulcahy shot 67.5% from the line on 40 attempts and is now shooting 66.1% overall for his career. He made slight improvement last season, so if he can maintain that direction this season, it will be a positive.

On the flip side, Cliff Omoruyi shot the lowest percentage of the core eight on the team last season at just 42.4% on 33 attempts. His work ethic this offseason has been praised by everyone inside the program. While it’s unlikely Omoruyi will become one of the best free throw shooters on the team, if he can trend closer to 60%, it would mark major improvement overall. It’s crucial actually, as he had the highest free throw rate on the team at 57.9% last season. He would have ranked in the top 50 nationally in that statistic if he had played more minutes. With increased minutes this season, Omoruyi will have more opportunity from the line and he needs to be more efficient. Just not being a liability on the court at the end of games as a free throw shooter would be a positive development.

As for the two transfers, Aundre Hyatt shot 70.0% last season on 20 attempts and is shooting 75.0% for his career. With it likely that Hyatt will have more scoring opportunities at Rutgers compared to LSU, he should make a positive impact from the line. Ralph Agee made 60.6% of his 66 attempts last season and is shooting 61.8% for his career. That’s decent for a big man and better than Rutgers had upfront last season. Agee was also 177th in the nation last year with a 45.0% free throw rate, so he knows how to draw fouls. If he takes a portion of the attempts that Johnson took last season, it should lead to improvement for the team.

The impact that the newcomers to the core rotation will make in Mawot Mag, who was 3 of 6 for 50.0% last season, and Jaden Jones, who did not have any attempts, remains to be seen. If they can shoot in the 65.0%-70.0% range, it wouldn’t be earth shattering efficiency but it certainly wouldn’t hurt the team either. If they can shoot over 70.0%, even more progress will be made.

As for the rest of the bench, Dean Reiber was 5 of 6 last season at 83.3%, Oskar Palmquist was 3 of 6 for 50.0% and Jalen Miller is making his debut.

Free throw shooting percentage is not a season making or killing area in college basketball, even if it feels that way at times. While Rutgers was the worst free throw shooting team to make the NCAA Tournament last season, they still got there and advanced to the second round. The two other tourney teams that shot almost as poorly as RU last season from the line were Creighton at 64.0% and USC at 64.9%. They made the Sweet 16 and Elite 8 respectively, both losing to national runner-up Gonzaga. All three teams exited March Madness for other reasons than free throw shooting and Rutgers even shot 9 of 12 for 75.0% from the free throw line in the loss to Houston.

The point is while you can overcome being a poor free throw shooting team, it certainly is beneficial to be more efficient in taking advantage of the freebies. Making or missing free throws at certain points of a game can have a huge impact on the flow. Even when a team is struggling shooting wise from the floor, you can generate offense on the line to stay in games and prevent opponents from making a huge run. Missing the front end of a one and one can be crippling to a comeback or putting a game away late. Reducing the possibility of losing games due to missed free throws is critical as this program looks to continue to move up the Big Ten ladder. And it takes pressure off an offense knowing you can convert from the line.

Rutgers has improved significantly in offensive efficiency under Pikiell, improving from the 200’s nationally in his first two seasons to 72nd and 82nd overall the past two seasons per KenPom. However, the Scarlet Knights need to improve its offensive efficiency even more so and are unlikely to break into the top 50 nationally until they can be consistent from the foul line.

Pikiell prioritizes work from the line in practice by calling on different players throughout practice to step up and shoot a free throw after multiple drills. If they make it, they go onto the next drill. If they miss, the team runs and continues to until a player does make a free throw. Practice always ends this way as well. This is on top of designated times to focus as a team on shooting free throws during practice.

Is Rutgers going to be one of the best free throw shooting teams in the country this season? No, not even close. Just to be included in the top 50 nationally in free throw shooting percentage last season meant shooting just under 75%. The best teams have multiple players shooting over an 80% clip from the line. However, if RU can approach being an average free throw shooting team, they’ll be much improved from the line and it will greatly benefit their offensive efficiency overall.

The average team shooting percentage from the charity stripe last season was 71.1%. Can Rutgers get close to that level of efficiency from the line? It’s possible and not a pipe dream.

Five of the six players expected to play the most minutes this season in Harper Jr., Baker, McConnell, Mulcahy and Hyatt shot a combined 72.8% from the free throw line last season. All have shot over 70% in multiple seasons other than Mulcahy. Getting Baker and McConnell, the two most accurate free throw shooters on the team, more attempts is a must. If Harper Jr. and Mulcahy can improve even more this season and Hyatt remains steady with more attempts, more progress will be made.

How much Omoruyi can improve, whether Agee remains consistent and the impact that new rotation players like Jaden Jones and Mag Mawot will make will be key in ultimately determining how strong of a free throw shooting team Rutgers becomes this season.

After shooting 63.6% from the line as a team last season and never making more than 65.2% of its attempts in any season under Steve Pikiell, it’s reasonable to expect this to be his best free throw shooting team so far. How good remains to be seen but based on data and trends, there is reason to believe it will be Pikiell’s best free throw shooting team by a considerable margin.