February 20, 2014

Bob Lutz: From 15 feet, these Shockers are automatic

I know why you’re giddy, Shocker basketball fans. And it has nothing to do with 28-0.

I know why you’re giddy, Shocker basketball fans. And it has nothing to do with 28-0.

It’s because you don’t worry anymore about free throws. Remember the old days, when a missed free throw could send this fan base – or any fan base, for that matter – into a tizzy?

“It’s a free throw,” came the refrain. “It’s ‘free.’ Why are we missing free throws?”

The Shockers don’t miss free throws anymore, at least not many. For some reason, Wichita State has been shooting free throws with a high rate of success since the 1999-2000 season. Only three times during those 15 seasons have the Shockers failed to make at least 70.7 percent.

Remarkable considering that in the 49 previous seasons, the Shockers made 70 percent of their free throws only 12 times with a low of 60.9 percent in 1984-85. Blame Henry Carr.

There are many reasons for the success of this season’s Shockers, but free-throw shooting has to be in the mix. WSU is shooting 74.4 percent, fourth best in program history. It helps that the three players who get to the line most — Cleanthony Early, Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet — are shooting a collective 85.3 percent (324 of 380).

Only 13 players in Shocker history have made 85 percent of their free throws in a season; this year’s team could have three.

The most striking aspect of this season’s free-throw shooting, though, isn’t the success rate. It’s that the Shockers have made 208 more free throws than their opponents. Over 28 games, that’s 7.4 points in WSU’s favor before the ball is tossed.

It’s an amazing number. So amazing, there’s only one instance in Shocker history that’s comparable.

During the 1986-87 season, Eddie Fogler’s first as coach after replacing Gene Smithson, WSU shot 915 free throws compared to 495 for its opponents. That’s an incredible difference of 420. That also happened to be the season that Henry Carr, who had made just under 40 percent of his attempts the previous two seasons, made 60.4 percent. And he went to the line a lot, as did Sasha Radunovich, Gus Santos and Steve Grayer.

The Shockers outscored opponents at the line by 270 points that season. And by 190 and 187 points during the next two seasons under Fogler, who then departed for Vanderbilt. There was something about a Fogler team that attracted foul calls.

The wide disparity in free throws between this season’s Shockers and their opponents is more difficult to explain. Gregg Marshall’s previous six teams had a combined edge of 59 made free throws. About 10 per season. Last season, the Shockers made 553 free throws. So did their opponents. Free throws were a wash.

Not so this season.

The Shockers are a slashing, driving team and the new rules in college basketball, which mandate that officials call more hand-checking fouls, has undoubtedly helped Wichita State, which has made 16 more free throws than its opponents have attempted.

WSU has big edges over opponents in every statistical category, as you would expect with an unbeaten team. But three free-throw disparity stands out.

The Shockers have already shot 748 free throws with three games remaining in the regular season and who knows how many in the postseason. That’s already the third-most free throws in a season since 1980-81.

This team does not avoid contact and makes opponents pay when it gets to the line. It’s interesting that the guards, VanVleet and Baker, shoot so many free throws, 231 so far. They are aggressive, hard-charging backcourt mates who do not back down from physical contact.

Those two and Early are especially hot from the free-throw line. None has missed more than one free throw in a game since Baker was 3 of 5 in a Feb. 1 win over Evansville at Koch Arena. There hasn’t been three missed free throws in a game from the trio since Early went 1 for 4 in a January home win over Illinois State.

In the last four games, VanVleet, Baker and Early are 64 of 69 from the line (92.7 percent).

There are basketball coaches across the world wringing their hands because they cannot get their players to consistently make free throws. And they’ve tried everything.

For the Shockers, it comes naturally. And it has for a while now, easing the minds of a fan base with plenty to chew on.

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