At this point LIU Brooklyn and free throws should be almost synonymous in people’s heads. For each of the past two seasons during their run through the NEC the Blackbirds have been in the Top 10 in the nation in both offensive and defensive free throw rate.
This season LIU has attempted 491 free throws in the second halves of games alone. Their opponents have attempted 411 free throws total. It’s an amazing rate that is certainly helping them win basketball games. In fact, there are four teams – LIU, Gonzaga, Long Beach State and Nevada – that are in the Top 25 in both offensive and defensive free throw rates. Each of those teams currently leads their respective conferences and is the favorite for an automatic berth to the NCAA tournament.
“It’s something we’ve done every game for years. It’s not fluke,” said LIU head coach Jim Ferry after his team shot 30 free throws against St. Francis (NY). “It’s not like well they got… We get 30 fouls shots every game. We lead the country in doing so. It’s part of what we do. You just have to relax step up and make them.”
The fact that LIU makes the free throws is just as important as taking them. With 566 free throws made this season the Blackbirds rank number one in the nation. That’s even after shooting 84 fewer free throws than the No. 1 team in offensive free throw rate, New Mexico State. That’s because LIU shoots 73.4% from the line, the third highest percentage amongst teams in the Top 25 in free throw attempts and 45th in the nation overall.
It’s the second half though where LIU’s aggression really starts to show up. This season the Blackbirds have attempted 280 free throws in the first half and have a free throw rate of just 34.8% during the first 20 minutes. If that trend were continued over a full game LIU would rank 217th in the nation, but the Blackbirds go to work on opponents and the referees during the second half.
LIU has attempted 491 free throws in the second half and has a free throw rate of 67.3% during that time. That would be far and away the best mark in the nation if done over a full game and shows just how hard it is to stop the Blackbirds from getting to the line.
Part of the reason LIU has such a significant advantage from the line is the team’s frontcourt depth and its style of play. Julian Boyd, Jamal Olasewere and Kenny Onyechi almost have to be fouled in order for NEC opponents to hope to contain them. Both Boyd and Olasewere rank in the top 100 players in the nation in individual free throw rate and if Onyechi had enough minutes to qualify he would rank seventh overall.
Olasewere in particular is a handful for officials. His continuously attacking style puts pressure on defenses to stand in and take charges or to try to strip the ball on the dribble, each moment offering up an opportunity to draw another foul. It’s why according to Ken Pomeroy’s estimates Olasewere ranks seventh in the nation in fouls drawn per 40 minutes, there’s just no other way to guard him. (Boyd ranks ninth by the way.)
This is all well and good, but watching the Blackbirds and listening to Ferry speak you have to wonder, is this really a skill? Is there a way to be good at getting officials to call fouls and avoiding them? Lets look at a few graphs to help determine the answer.
There are three questions I want to attempt to answer here:
- Is this a repeatable skill year to year? (Can you coach it?)
- Are offensive and defensive free throw rates related?
- Is being a good team, and having late leads, the way to have a high free throw rate?
First in terms of if this is a repeatable skill. Well, if it wasn’t luck and teams could really teach it you’d see a correlation from year-to-year. It appears you certainly can teach teams to not foul. From 2009-10 to 2010-11 there was a 0.61 correlation between a team’s defensive free throw rates. From 2010-11 to this season that correlation currently stands at 0.56. Considering the turnover in personnel and coaching staffs, that seems like a strong indicator that this is a skill that can be taught. On the other hand, offensive free throw rate doesn’t show quite as strong a correlation at 0.47 and 0.37 year-to-year over those same seasons. Here are graphs of 2011 vs. 2012 seasons for both.
For another example of why defensive free throw rate may be able to be taught take a look at the year-to-year improvement in Ferry’s Blackbirds. Since he went through an entire recruiting cycle he’s never had a team finish worse than 100th in the nation in defensive free throw rate. Over the past four seasons the Blackbirds have ranked 77th, 54th, 7th and now 2nd. It’s obvious that they’re on to something and it’s working. (It’s worth noting though that a strong defensive free throw rate doesn’t mean you’ve got a good defense. It’s just one small component.) If winning the battle at the line is important to a staff’s philosophy it can be done.
But this brings me to point two. If avoiding and drawing fouls are teachable skills then why isn’t there a clear correlation between the two? For instance, there is almost no correlation between offensive and defensive free throw rate this season. Here’s a graph with both on the axes. It’s a giant blob.
Also, it doesn’t appear that offensive free throw rates are impacted by how good a team is. I thought that maybe teams that were talented, as measured by their Pomeroy rating, would also have a high offensive free throw rate. That’s not the case as it turns out, as you can see in the graph below. (Well, there’s a slight relationship.)
So what have we learned? LIU and free throws have a special bond and the Blackbirds have a unique skill that will certainly serve them well for the rest of the season and possibly into the future as well.