December 12, 2012
Inside the numbers
Finals week is upon us.
Well, not for me anymore. But perhaps for some of you reading, and for every single member of the Iowa basketball team. It's a period that gives us an eight-day gap between games, and the Hawkeyes are surely using a modified practice schedule this week to make time for those all-important examinations.
Hopefully it's not a time that results in Aaron White locking himself in the gym again, but it's never a bad thing if players take an opportunity to get some extra shots in - especially free throws.
The Hawkeyes have done significant damage at the free-throw line this season. Any team that finishes in the top half of its conference typically makes good use of the charity stripe, which is exactly what Iowa has done thus far.
We knew the arrival of Fran McCaffery at Iowa almost three years ago would bring about some major change to the program. A dramatic increase in free-throw rate is one of the biggest - and beneficial - changes that have happened under McCaffery.
One of Iowa's biggest pitfalls under former coach Todd Lickliter was how difficult it was to get easy baskets. Lickliter's offense was designed around the perimeter - one that focused on launching 3-point shots at every opportunity - and placing a very low emphasis on attacking the basket and getting to the hoop.
The aforementioned philosophies revealed themselves in the form of Iowa's free-throw numbers during Lickliter's tenure. The Hawkeyes attempted an average of only 15.9 free throws under Lickliter, which spanned three seasons and 96 games.
That's a number that this season would be ahead of only Nebraska (14.5) in the Big Ten. And even when Lickliter's teams got to the line, they didn't necessarily do a great job of taking advantage of it, hitting 69.4 percent of their free throws - a figure that would rank eighth in the Big Ten currently. Not quite as bad, but still unaffordably poor considering the few times that the Hawkeyes were actually getting to the line.
Iowa has seen its free-throw numbers take a dramatic shift under McCaffery, though - with improvements each season:
Free throw attempts per game (FT%)
2010-11: 19.4 (67.6%)
2011-12: 21.8 (72.1%)
2012-13: 24.8 (73.8%)
Now, the bump this year from 21.8 to 24.8 may on the surface seem small, but that's three additional opportunities to score with wide-open shots. That's three points, and four Iowa games were decided by three or less last season. It's enough to be considered significant, especially for a good free-throw shooting team.
A solid free-throw rate like Iowa's is an indication of aggressive drives to the basket and active play inside. Getting to the free throw line often makes life easier, and teams with high free-throw rates are generally very good teams. Iowa's rate this year of 24.8 attempts per game ranks 35th in the country and is 0.2 behind Duke, who is ranked second in the country.
Obviously the Hawkeyes aren't near that level yet, but it's a good sign and a good omen, particularly with conference play on the very near horizon.
So who, in particular, has keyed this improvement for Iowa?
Aaron White and Melsahn Basabe. Shocking, I know, that Aaron White helped Iowa get better at something. But for all the areas in which White makes an impact for the Hawkeyes, his ability to get to the free-throw line ranks among his most significant contributions.
White already excelled in this category last season despite less playing time. As a freshman, his 4.1 free-throw attempts per game led Iowa.
This year, he's not only leading Iowa, but his 7.0 free-throw attempts per game lead the entire Big Ten. That figure ties him for 32nd in the country with numerous players, including Baylor's Pierre Jackson - who if you've ever seen play, you know he's one of the nation's top guards.
It's pretty impressive that White - who is sizable but not a 7-footer that is worthy of the "Hack-a-Shaq" strategy - can draw foul shots as often as lightning-quick, high-scoring point guard.
White's overall attempts number of 70 this season was tied for 16th in the country on Tuesday. That's not far behind the 78 by Duke's Mason Plumlee, and it's actually ahead of other notables like Nate Wolters, Doug McDermott, and Cody Zeller.
Of course, nobody cares how often you get to the line if you don't make any free throws. But White is finishing the job, hitting 78.6 percent of his freebies. That's a nearly 10 percent increase from the mediocre 69.9 percent clip he shot at last season.
Basabe is another player that's been a major boon for Iowa's free-throw effectiveness. Now, the junior forward's free-throw rate hasn't seen a dramatic rise - not surprising especially considering his minutes have dropped from last year - but his percentages have:
Basabe free-throw rate (FT %)
2011-12: 3.0 (65.7%)
2012-13: 3.6 (75.0%)
That's another significant improvement, especially for a player we know isn't out there because of his shooting stroke. As with many other facets of his game, Basabe has made significant strides at the free-throw line and it's paying off for the Hawkeyes as a whole. Well done.
You can follow Jordan Garretson on Twitter here and visit his Iowa basketball blog, "No Beer in Heaven."
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