There are several reasons why Rutgers has won four straight Big Ten games for the first time since joining the conference seven seasons ago. They’ve been elite on the defensive end and are capitalizing on opponents turnovers, they have outrebounded its opponent in all four wins, and they are sharing the basketball, which has resulted in improving its shot selection. However, another area that has been a major weakness this season has greatly improved during this streak.
Rutgers was shooting just 58% from the free throw line for the season before the past four victories. They were struggling getting to the line as well. It bottomed out during the five game losing streak in January, when RU had an average free throw rate of 17.9% and made just 23 of 57 attempts for a horrific 40.3%. To be clear, free throw rate is the ratio of foul shots to field goal attempts.
While the terrible shooting warranted strong criticism, so did the fact that the Scarlet Knights were not attacking enough offensively to generate free throw attempts. For perspective, only one team has a free throw rate worse than 25% in Big Ten play (Wisconsin), so averaging 17.9% during the five losses was really inept and a major contributing factor.
It’s not a coincidence that once Rutgers started getting to the line more, they started to take advantage of its trips to the charity stripe. During the four game winning streak, Rutgers has had an average free throw rate of 37.5% and had made 53 of 76 attempts for a respectable 69.7%. They shot over 70% in three of the four wins, averaging 74.0% overall in wins over Indiana, Michigan State and Minnesota.
There is something to be said for establishing rhythm at the foul line. Rutgers averaged only 11.4 attempts from the charity stripe during the five game losing streak, but have averaged 19.0 attempts during the current four game winning streak. They’ve been far more accurate in part because they are getting to the line more often.
As a team, the Scarlet Knights have improved 2% for the season due to the past four games and are now shooting 60.1% through 17 contests. It’s still a very poor percentage and 343rd nationally, but this recent stretch shows there is hope that Rutgers can sustain better shooting from the line then they exhibited the first part of the season.
The second half of the win over Minnesota highlighted how difficult Rutgers can be to beat when they’re getting to the line and converting foul shots. They were an impressive 13 of 15 for 86.7%. Trailing by four points with just over two minutes to play, RU went 5 of 6 from the line, which was a big factor in the 76-72 victory.
Geo Baker made two key free throws to cut Minnesota’s lead from four points to two, which was the beginning of a closing 10-2 run to win the game. After Baker’s step back jumper to give Rutgers the lead for good, Ron Harper Jr. made 3 of 4 attempts to seal the victory by making it a two possession game.
“We made free throws in the second half to kind of wrap things up,” said head coach Steve Pikiell after the game. “Good teams do those things. You’ve got to get big stops and we did when we had to. We got fouled and made free-throws, and we executed down the stretch with the possessions that we needed to execute on.”
Harper Jr. has been the biggest reason for the team’s improvement from the foul line during the winning streak. Although he has struggled from three-point range for an extended stretch now, he is starting to generate offense by attacking the rim and drawing fouls. Harper Jr. has led Rutgers at the line during the four game winning streak by making 17 of 21 attempts for 81% shooting from the charity stripe. He has improved his season average from 61.3% to 69.2% during this recent stretch. There is no reason why Harper Jr. shouldn’t sustain or even improve on his season average down the stretch of this season.
Geo Baker is a career 76% free throw shooter and has made 7 of 8 attempts over the past four games, bringing his season average to 72.7%. He has had a more attacking mindset since shifting to the primary ball handler and he needs to get to the line as much as possible moving forward.
Having Caleb McConnell play more minutes during the four game winning streak has been a positive factor as well in many ways and the line is one of them. He made 5 of 6 foul shots and is now 81.8% for the season, although he only has 11 attempts. However, he led the team last season shooting 79.2% from the line. Getting McConnell to the foul line on a more regular basis will provide a major benefit.
Jacob Young was 10 of 15 from the charity stripe the past four games and is shooting 70.7% for the season. He is solid from the line, the best penetrator on the roster and leads the team with 58 free throw attempts.
The fact that Harper Jr., Baker, McConnell and Young took 66% of the team’s free throw shots during this win streak is a big reason why Rutgers has executed better from the line. That needs to continue and if it does, the free throw line will no longer be a weakness.
Asked if the recent performance from the foul line boosts the team’s confidence after the win over Minnesota, Baker said, “For sure. The confidence should already be there to be honest. We have a lot of great shooters. It’s just a mental thing. We just have to step up to the line and just shoot it. We’ve been (shooting) a lot of free throws in practice and it showed today.”
Rutgers has established a clear path to the program’s first NCAA Tournament berth in 30 years after finding themselves during the four game winning streak. Turning the team’s biggest weakness into something they have been at worst, serviceable, and at best, above average, has made a major difference. If RU continues to attack the rim and get the right players to the foul line, they should continue to perform at a much higher level in this area the rest of the way and it should lead to more wins than losses.