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The Sun’s Arizin: Are Free Throws the Key for Villanova Basketball?

Do the Wildcats need to do a better job getting to the charity stripe?

Villanova Mug Arizin Links

Happy Thursday Nova Nation! Let’s start with the best thing that came out of last night’s game, Josh Hart’s jersey retirement. Thank you again Josh for everything you helped this program achieve during and following your time at Villanova!

Now let’s get into the not so happy part of last night, the loss. As fans, it’s natural to want to distill everything down to one issue that can be identified and resolved. It’s almost never the case, and it’s probably not the issue here. There were several contributing factors to last night’s loss: poor shooting, short rotation, and let’s not forget the dumb luck that goes into any one possession win or loss. But today, there is one aspect of the game I want to focus on, and that’s the lack of free throws.

Let me be a little more specific, the lack of free throws made. That doesn’t mean Villanova isn’t good at making free throws. They actually rank 3rd in the country, shooting 81.4% as a team on the season. The problem is when they can’t get to the line... which is a lot. Villanova ranks just 236th nationally at Free Throw Rate, or number of free throws attempted per field goals attempted. For a team that gets over 18% of their points per game from the free throw line, that’s a really low FTRate.

Now part of the reason they don’t make as many trips to the line is by design. Villanova is traditionally a very good shooting team, both inside and out. When you can get your shot and create separation, you’re usually not bumping around on the inside where fouls are more likely to be called. Also, teams know how good Villanova is at the line, so you’ll see them give up a slightly contested shot vs sending them to the line for what may seem like guaranteed points. But the other part of it is that there’s still some hesitation from guys like Samuels, Slater, and Dixon when it comes to using a jump stop in the lane and going up for the shot.

We got the perfect example of what this looks like ideally from Collin Gillespie last night. He used the jump stop to create a second of separation between him and his defender before going up with the shot and drawing a foul. But with some of the other players, it seems like the point of the drive is to get to the jump stop, and then decide what to do. Sometimes that’s the right thing to do if the defense collapses and the shot is gone, but too often it seems like there’s opportunity to attack the rim that’s missed.

So what does this mean for the outcome of games? Well I hate to pick arbitrary numbers, but let’s do it anyway to emphasize the point. This season when Villanova makes just 10 or fewer free throws, they’re 1-4. The lone win was over Syracuse. When they make 11 or more free throws, they’re 12-1, the lone loss was to Creighton.

So how does Villanova improve on getting to the line? The joke answer is to bring in JayVaughn Pinkston to run a clinic. Pinkston wast THE BEST at drawing fouls, putting up a FTRate of 83.6% in his senior season. For comparison, this year’s leader is Brandon Slater at 39.5%. Pinkston’s combination of speed and strength was just impossible to stop in the lane, and his physical gifts meant you were either giving up a layup or sending him to the line.

In reality, Villanova just needs better footwork around the basket. Slater is a gifted slasher to the basket, and while he’s coming off injury still, hopefully he can get back into early season form. We see Samuels attack the rim when he makes the decision to do so at the start of his drive, but when he’s indecisive he pulls up and then often gets lost in his own footwork before kicking it out. And Dixon, while improving, is still dancing around under the basket too much. He needs to use his Pinkston sized frame to finish at the rim through contact to draw the foul. We’ve seen him do it, he did it a few times against Marquette, we just need to see it more.

Villanova isn’t going to abandon their style of play. This is still a shooting team, and I for one am really happy with the balance they’ve found behind the arc, around 40% of shots coming from deep. Earlier this season that number was closer to, even eclipsing 50%. But on the nights when shots aren’t falling from outside, the team really needs to grind on defense (which they did) and fight for baskets inside. It’s those nights when free throws can be the difference between a win and a loss.

In other news...

Marquette defeats Villanova

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Villanova had an off night shooting, while Marquette hustled on every play and ultimately made the final shot to win.

Late-three pushes Marquette past Wildcats 57-54 | Villanova University
VILLANOVA, Pa. – Marquette scored the last seven points of the contest to knock off No.11/11 Villanova 57-54 Wednesday night at Finneran Pavilion. Justin Lewis sank

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