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Why Northwestern always loses the free throw battle

John Shurna would never.

NCAA Basketball: Indiana at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Stats used in this piece were found at the sites of CBB Reference, Synergy Sports Technology, BartTorvik and KenPom.

In somehow what is now the worst loss of this perpetually dreadful season, Northwestern took only 12 free throw attempts in a 79-76 double overtime loss to Indiana last Wednesday. Meanwhile, its victorious adversary doled out a grand heaping of 38 attempts from the charity stripe in the 50 minutes of basketball that were played.

That got the gears churning in my weird hoops-centric brain and led to some statistical research on the ‘Cats’ proclivity for generating foul shots compared to their opponents.

Just looking at raw free throws attempted per game, the difference between NU and its opposition appears trivial. Northwestern averages 16.9 foul shots per game through 18 contests, while its opponents take about 19.6 free throw attempts per game. Pretty insignificant in the grand scheme of things, right?

That is until you take a closer look and you find that 99 of NU’s 304 free throw attempts were attempted in four games, and those four games just happen to be composed of the Wildcats’ entire non-conference schedule. Add in the fact that three of those four outer conference matches were against the 352nd and 356th ranked teams in KenPom (357 teams total) and a D-II squad, and further investigation is required.

Northwestern’s lowest free throw attempt total in non-conference action (23 against Arkansas) is still greater than its highest total in Big Ten play (21 against Ohio State). Through 14 conference matchups, Northwestern is averaging only 13.8 free throw attempts per game, while opposing teams are attempting 20.6 foul shots.

For perspective on how impactful that 6.8 attempts per game gap is, it’s larger than the gap in attempts per game between the NBA-leading Philadelphia 76ers and the 28th team in that statistic, the Indiana Pacers.

A high volume of free throws are inherently a great thing for one’s team to accumulate. Heck, the most efficient play in basketball remains getting fouled on three point shot, where even a 70% foul shooter would check in at around 2.1 points per play. Getting beat this soundly in one of the pillars offensive efficiency is a recipe for disaster.

This begs the question: Why does this discrepancy exist for Northwestern? Why is it that the Wildcats get outclassed by the rest of the B1G in getting to the foul line?

Some may harken back to the classic, “Northwestern is just getting screwed over by the refs because it’s the perennial bottom dweller of the conference” trope that is often played by basically every sporting fanbase that has ever existed. There are instances where college refs are indeed #bad, and they probably have tilted a contest or two ever so slightly agains the ‘Cats, but such results-focused evidence is anecdotal, nearly impossible to quantify and therefore not a productive focus for this question.

What might be the true limiting factor for Northwestern is the lack of vertical pop scattered throughout the roster.

I’ve harped on Northwestern’s underwhelming collective bounce before, ridiculing the team for its conference-worst 26 dunks total in the 2019 season (already up to 36 through 18 games this season!), but the slight does have a legit purpose for this inquiry.

Think about it like this — if a player jumps higher, it becomes far easier for an official to see the prohibited contact that takes place, especially on drives to the rim, which account for the large majority of free throws taken by a basketball team at any level. The referee has no bodies to look though, no cluttered jumbles in which they have to determine a specific fault on one specific player even though they don’t have a clear picture of what is actually taking place. Jump above the traffic in the paint, though, and there should be a whistle coming your way.

You assemble a focus group of 10 people to assess the above play and I’d bet at least seven say a foul shouldn’t have been called. Pete Nance made a great adjustment and reacted well to deflect the ball on the release. Yet, the referee pinned him for a swipe on the arm. Why? Because Indiana’s Rob Phinisee got up for that rim attack. If Nance made any contact with Phinisee’s arm at all, the official had the clearest picture possible with both player elevated over their peers in his direct line of sight.

Let’s contrast that with an at-rim attempt the ‘Cats had later that game when no foul was given despite plenty of contact present.

It seems pretty clear that Robbie Beran was struck across the arm after receiving the dump down pass, but because he is situated beneath the Indiana defender, the whistle stays silent. If you don’t jump above the man defending you, a thought process triggers in that referee’s head. They likely assume that contact was not the primary deterrent in the miss, but rather that the offensive player did not possess the requisite athleticism to finish a play through the defense. Stay flat footed, and the calls won’t come.

Before anyone goes clamoring that the officiating is wack and that NU’s infrequent trips to the foul line are a part of some anti-Northwestern conspiracy, the lack of foul calling on low bounce attempts swung against the Hoosiers as well at times. Take this late hook shot by Trayce Jackson-Davis, where an argument could certainly have been made for a lack of verticality on the part of Ryan Young.

There are undoubtedly some confounding variables present in this though process of mine. More athletic players can blow by their defenders in the half court more easily, generating more rim pressures and therefore more chances to draw foul shots. Teams that are leading typically shoot more free throws because the opponent is playing more physical defense and in the final minutes fouling intentionally to preserve a chance of winning. Northwestern often enters said final minutes trailing. There have been a couple of games in which the ‘Cats flat out received the short end of the stick.

Those things can all be true, but the cavernous gap NU faces at the foul line is larger than any of those reasons. It’s a flaw in the system that the players are at an athletic disadvantage with respect to their foes, and where they don’t know how to use the few hops they do have properly.

It’s why this somewhat iffy sequence of contact garners a whistle.

And why nothing was given to this stumble by Miller Kopp in the open court that was likely enabled by a quick slap to the arms.

You know who leads the ‘Cats in free throws attempted per game? Kopp at a mere mark of 3.3 FTA per game. Chase Audige and Ryan Young are the only other players on the team who average over 2.0 per game. Northwestern is tied for second-to-last in the Big Ten in percentage of shots that end in a trip to the foul line at a blah 11.6%. Meanwhile, it sends opponents to the line 13.6% of their time down to the floor. Remember that those percentages are skewed upward by their gigantic advantage over their soft non-conference schedule, and the picture that the numbers paint is somehow not dire enough.

If I wrote a 1,000-plus word piece for every damaging problem that’s been revealed throughout this 11-game losing streak, the content overload would be criminal. Bigger issues are present, but the scariest part about this one is that the fix isn’t even that obvious.