Despite a couple of bad losses, men’s basketball has racked up 14 solid wins by mid-January, and barring a late-season meltdown, looks poised for a second-consecutive postseason appearance.
While the team’s success is the product of a number of factors, one statistic in particular has quietly influenced almost every GW decision this season: free throw shooting.
The 77–70 loss at Dayton Friday, for example, showed just how critical foul shots can be. GW outshot the Flyers by wide margins from both the field and three-point range, but went just 5‒15 from the line while Dayton hit a crucial 16 of 17.
“Mental mistakes. Free throws, missed assignments on defense ‒ those were two key things that we lacked in the last five minutes and I was a big part of that. We’ve just got to focus a little bit more and we’ll be fine,” senior forward Kevin Larsen, who was 1‒4 at the line, said Friday.
Head coach Mike Lonergan consistently emphasizes how important getting to and converting at the line is for his squad. Making more free throws than their opponents attempt has been a goal for the Colonials all year.
“We like that stat, I think we’ve made more free throws than our opponents have attempted, that old Duke stat,” Lonergan said after Tuesday’s win at Massachusetts. “I think that’s a sign of a really winning program, so we’ve got to keep that going.”
And so far, GW (14‒4, 3‒2 A-10) has done so. On 430 attempts, the Colonials have made 323 total foul shots this season, the 26th-most in the country. Meanwhile, their opponents have combined for only 304 attempts at the line and converted on 217.
In some of the Colonials’ biggest wins, free throw shooting played a pivotal role. In the upset over then-No. 6 Virginia, GW made 23 while the Cavaliers attempted just 16, and during a win over Seton Hall, the Colonials hit 17 while the Pirates attempted only 10. They sank a season-high 29 against Massachusetts and Lafayette, and held Gardner-Webb to a season-low seven free throw attempts.
The team has also seen substantial improvement in this area compared to last season. At 75.2 percent, GW’s clip from the charity stripe is 20th-best in the nation and second-best to only Saint Bonaventure in the A-10. Last year, the Colonials shot a 68.1 free throw percentage, eighth-best in the A-10.
The spike in trips and shots made at the line seems puzzling for a team which lacks drivers, but just as it leads in offensive production from the field, GW’s frontcourt has led the charge.
Among NCAA Division I players who play in at least 75 percent of their team’s games, redshirt junior forward Tyler Cavanaugh boasts the 51st-highest free throw percentage at 85.4, while he and Larsen have combined for more than 40 percent of all free throws attempted and made by GW this season.
Lonergan applauded this effort after the 11-point win over the Minutemen on the road, a place GW has gone 3‒3 this season.
“Sometimes we forget, we’ve got to go in [inside to Tyler and Kevin] there. It’s harder for Alex because he’s small and sometimes Kevin’s like, ‘I need the ball,’ but he can’t really see over those guys. But when we go inside, good things happen. That’s something that’s been one of the positives for our team,” Lonergan said Tuesday. “I don’t know if we’re still in the top 10. We were ninth a week ago in free throws, but to go 29-for-34 on the road and 12-for-12 in the first half really kept that game close when we were not playing great.”
Aside from Cavanaugh, the program also added two skilled shooters this offseason in guards Alex Mitola and Matt Hart who have been money from the line. Mitola has gone 27‒30 on the year, while Hart is a perfect 17‒17.
But when GW misses free throws, or gives its opposition more chances, it has the potential to cost them the game. Like in the five-point loss to Cincinnati in which GW went only 3‒4 from the line, or dropping a three-point decision at Saint Louis where the Colonials missed almost half of their 22 free throw attempts, or in a seven-point nail-biter against the Flyers.
“Five-for-15 from the line, you don’t deserve to win shooting like that, so the mental toughness has to increase,” Lonergan said Friday. “And Dayton’s 15-for-16 in the second half and 16-for-17 in the game, so that’s a big discrepancy there. That’s something that we can control and we didn’t do a good job at the free throw line.”
It may not seem like a statistic that can make or break a game, but for GW, drawing fouls and turning them into valuable points has been and will continue to be a major key to getting wins.