When a basketball player is fouled in the act of shooting, he heads to the "charity stripe." He shoots two "freebies." However, for Virginia basketball this season, these slang terms have been far from applicable. While the team has been anything but static this season, recovering from a lackluster start to reel off a 9-1 ACC start, one thing has remained consistent: this is not a good free-throw shooting team. Fans were reminded of this during Wednesday's win against BC, when non-Malcolm Brogdon players shot 11-25, and as far back as the loss to VCU, when 6 of 15 free throw shooting probably cost the Hoos the game.
On the surface, there's nothing terribly strange about that. Each team has strengths and weaknesses, even great ones. Memphis's 2008 squad, which fell in OT in the national championship game, was 329th in the nation (out of the then-341 teams in D-I), making just 61.4% of their free throw attempts.
What makes UVA's struggles bizarre is that the same personnel was a capable FT-shooting team last season, when the squad made 70.6% of attempts, just above the league average of 69.4%. In the off-season, UVA graduated Jontel Evans, a 38% FT shooter, and saw the transfers of Taylor Barnette and Paul Jesperson, who combined to take 16 FTs. The Hoos added London Perrantes, Malcolm Brogdon, and Anthony Gill into the mix, the first two of whom are the team's best free-throw shooters, with each above 80% on the season. Despite that, the team is 5% worse from the line; its combined 64.8% is 320th in the nation, and 5% below the league average.
What's gone wrong? Every single returning player has seen a decline of at least 7% from last season. And the team's highest volume free-throw shooters, Akil Mitchell and Joe Harris, have seen drops by 10% and 25%, respectively. The chart below gives you a better look at things - note that green shaded cells indicate the player shot above the NCAA average, and I've put 2011-2012 stats for Brogdon and Gill under "2012-2013," since they redshirted last season, so the team's 73% total doesn't match our true FT% for 2012-2013. (Click to enlarge):
Conclusions from the chart are clear: Akil Mitchell takes a ton of free-throws (less these days), and doesn't hit them. Joe Harris's FT% and his 42% three-point percentage are rapidly converging. Any everybody else not named "Malcolm" or "London" is stinking it up too.
Through it all, the team is getting to the FT line at a much higher rate - last year's squad averaged .316 FTA/FGA (281st in the nation), but this year's is up to .444 (83rd). One issue is that the increased attempts are not necessarily from our best shooters. Our leaders in FT rate are Anthony Gill and Akil Mitchell, at .75 and .63, respectively. Mike Tobey, one of our better free-throw shooters, is down at .35 (still a huge improvement over his prior year), and we can't expect Perrantes and Brogdon to get to the line much more than they already are.
It's tough to figure why the team, especially guys like Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell, have fallen so precipitously. One theory is mean regression, the idea being that last season was the anomaly, and we are falling back to earth now. For Harris, who shot 77% as a freshman and sophomore, the numbers don't bear that out. Mitchell took a substantial jump last year; he probably wasn't as good as his 69% year, but his 25% fall is more than could be explained by a swing in luck.
There really isn't much else that I could think of pinning it on besides a combination of mental issues and bad luck. Tony Bennett has commented that players like Mitchell knock down their shots in practice, but can't seem to replicate that in-game. And, while I would expect that some of the issues are just bad luck, which will resolve itself down as the season progresses, free-throw shooting seems like it will remain a team weakness. It could haunt us in close games down the stretch, but all the team could do is keep the ball in the hands of guys like Brogdon late in games, and hope the other phases of its game are enough to keep games from being decided at the line.