Free throws are turning into a major strength for the 2008-2009 Syracuse Orange.
Seriously, hear me out.
I realize that as a team we’re shooting a mediocre 66%, but there’s more to free throw shooting than your success rate once you get there. There’s also the rate that you get to the line to begin with. Check out these amazing numbers from the last three games:
TEAM: Free Throws Made - Free Throws Attempted
Those numbers reflect total domination by the Orange at the free throw line, regardless of how many shots we missed from the stripe. Not to glorify a godless ACC squad or their heritage, but I have to credit Dean Smith with the maxim that a good way to win basketball games is to make more free throws than the other team attempts. It’s not quite a Moneyball caliber statistic, but I bet Mr. Smith was on to something when he listed that as a goal for his Tarheels before every game. It’s not just getting to the line more than the other team, it’s making more than the other team attempts. This can be accomplished either through a great shooting percentage (not SU’s forte), or by piling up the opportunities. Syracuse accomplished this feat in all three games.
There are many layers of logic supporting this statistic as a worthy goal: free throw attempts reflect an aggressive offensive posture; earning free throws leads to foul trouble for an opponent, which leads to more cautious defense on their part; free throw attempts show you’re not settling for jump shots; free throw attempts are unguarded opportunities to score, and result in much higher success percentages than shooting from the field (even for SU!). All these elements came through for SU in the three games.
The free throw dominance shown in those statistics was not a reflection of biased referreeing in our favor (especially not against Kansas, in an extremely unfriendly atmosphere where one would assume the refs would lean towards KU subconsciously). Instead our dominance at the line is a reflection of the phenonemal way SU has been running its offense. We’ve got guards and wing men that will not take no for an answer in their quest to get to the basket, and we’ve got a center that is an absolute load for opposing defenses to handle. We’ve only got one guy who would rather take a jump shot than go to the basket (Rautins), and we can all agree that’s fine for him. For the rest, what an incredible nightmare it must be to face these guys.
They all can take it to the hole, and they all know how to get fouled along the way. They all frequently draw fouls before they’re in the act of shooting (Arinze especially has been doing this, showing how terrified the opposing defender is at having to face him straight up), and — so far at least — they’ve shown a willingness to keep pushing towards the basket even when things aren’t working out in the first half, or even when the team is behind for a while. That alone represents a huge change from last season, when the team was more likely to start hiking up long range jumpers whenever things went poorly for a stretch.
Against all three opponents we saw the payoff from SU’s dedication to aggressive play: against Florida two of their forwards fouled out, another F finished with 4 fouls, and three other players had to deal with the stress of having 3 fouls. Against Kansas we fouled out their backup center, got their star center and two guards to 4 fouls, and the whole starting lineup finished the game with at least 3. Against Virginia we faced a team that lists three guards in its starting lineup, and we fouled out all three of them. Both of their centers had 3 fouls as well.
Foul trouble of that magnitude leads to an incalculable advantage for Syracuse down the stretch of games. Opposing defenders become hesistant and cautious, fearful of disqualification, right at the most important moment for them to be playing defense at their most energetic level. In turn, SU has shown excellent poise and success at scoring in the final five minutes of games, both by hitting free throws and by taking advantage of undermanned opponents. UVA especially, I thought, played impressively stingy and intense defense in the first half Friday night; but by the final ten minutes we were slicing them apart. This was partially due to us cutting down on the stupid turnovers, but surely had a lot to do with the fact that their entire backcourt was in massive foul trouble.
For the record, here are the season totals for SU and our opponents in FT and FTA:
Syracuse: 116-175 .663
Opponents: 51-89 .573
Convenient that our opposition has been even shittier at the line than us! Don’t expect that to keep up, but track the FT and FTA as we get into the Big East. If SU can maintain this kind of advantage we’ll be sitting pretty.