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Let’s Talk About Free Throws

Why are the Spartans so bad at these this year?

Michigan State v Wisconsin Photo by John Fisher/Getty Images

It has taken a couple of days for my post-game emotions to dissipate after seeing Michigan State blow a game they probably should have won Tuesday night at Minnesota. You know the story. MSU led by nine points with twelve minutes remaining. Then Minnesota drew even in about three minutes of game time. The Spartans and Gophers were neck and neck for several minutes after that, but that is because the Spartans did not take advantage of some opportunities they were given. Those “opportunities” I am referring to were a couple of trips to the free throw line. In the span of three offensive possessions, two different players, Malik Hall and then Carson Cooper, missed both free throws on their respective trips. Had even one of those four gone in, MSU could have extended the lead they had when Cooper was sent to the stripe. Instead, on Minnesota’s next possession, Cam Christie hit a three-pointer to claim the lead.

With just under ninety seconds to go, the Gophers hit another triple, this one from Dawson Garcia to go up three. A minute later, AJ Hoggard got fouled shooting a three of his own that would have tied the game, so at least he had a chance to even the game from the stripe. Now having watched this entire season to this point, I said to myself, “There is no way he is making all three of these.” I do not think I am some sort of oracle for having known that. This team has been astonishingly bad at shooting free throws this year. I will exclude the miss from Hoggard, and go back to the four FTs by Hall and Cooper. If just one of those four would have gone in, then MSU does not have to foul Christie after they rebounded Hoggard’s miss, and a defensive stop would have sent the game to overtime. Had two of those four gone in, MSU may have even won this in regulation.

In the aftermath of the game, as I stewed in my pity, I ruminated on the struggles of this Spartans team’s tribulations from the FT line, and I wondered how bad are they really? So I looked at some stats, and it turns out that, yeah, they are pretty bad.

On the season, MSU is shooting their free throws at a rate of 68.8%. Out of 361 teams across the NCAA, that puts them in a tie for 280th. This equates to roughly 77% of the teams being above MSU. The two teams they are tied with are college basketball royalty, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and Utah Valley. Impressively, this is not the worst performance in the Big Ten, as Minnesota, Rutgers, and Indiana are all shooting it even worse this year. But to pile on the bad shooting percentage, MSU is #249 nationally in FTAs, and 13th in the Big Ten, at 17.8 attempts per game.

In case you were curious, the worst team in this year’s NBA at shooting free throws is the Sacramento Kings, who are converting at 72.8%. That kind of makes me feel better about these Spartans.

Among MSU players, only four members of the roster are shooting FTs above the 70% threshold. AJ Hoggard leads the team at 80.8%, and Tre Holloman is right behind at 80. On the next rung are Tyson Walker at 71.8% and Mady Sissoko at 71.1. Everyone else is below 70. To compare that to years past, there has been a remarkable decline in the number of Spartans shooting FTs at or above 70%. That number has dropped in each of the last five seasons, going from ten to nine to eight to six to five last season. There may have been some inflation in those earliest two numbers as you had Brock Washington twice and Jack Hoiberg once hitting 100% of their FTAs in a season, admittedly on a low number of attempts. But the point remains, this program is getting worse at taking free throws.

Has Coach Izzo simply deprioritized this skill in practice? Is there some other root cause of this issue? Can they magically improve this part of their game down the stretch run? Or will we all be resigned to shouting at our televisions as MSU gives away more games due to not taking advantage of their trips to the charity stripe? I can’t believe I just had to write an article about MSU and free throw shooting.