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Free Throw Shooting Isn’t Killing Gonzaga, Yet

It might come and bite this team in the rear end sooner than later, however.

NCAA Basketball: Texas-Arlington at Gonzaga James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

There is one thing that will rankle any basketball fanbase, and the Gonzaga Bulldog faithful in particular: poor free throw shooting.

In a much tighter than expected win against the Texas-Arlington Mavericks last night, the Zags tried as hard as they could to make it as close as possible by shooting 17-for-30 from the free throw line. Last night was the first time the Zags have taken at least 30 free throw attempts and shot under 60 percent since February 2015.

Everyone was a contributor to the lost cause, but the easy blame falls on Ryan Woolridge (2-for-7) and Admon Gilder (7-for-11). Gilder is a career 77 percent free throw shooter, so we can hedge the worries there a bit. Woolridge is well-known for his free throw issues (career 53 percent) and it showed last night.

With over two minutes left in the game, and the Mavericks still within striking distance, they made the decision to foul Woolridge to stop the clock. The much-derided, yet incredibly effective, Hack-a-(insert player here) routine was now in motion. The Zags responded in the final two minutes by not letting Woolridge touch the ball. Gilder brought the ball up the court, and Woolridge was relegated to just quick passes—effectively neutralizing him as a player on offense, but leaving his defensive prowess on the court.

That is OK. If you want to get up with your hand wringing about Woolridges’ inability to hit a free throw, that is fine. On his career, he has shown he can’t, so I’ll save my emotional energy for some other cause. The reason why it is OK to leave Woolridge on the court in these situations is that, if the Zags are up and the fouling routine is in play, Woolridge is not going to be the first option scoring in that situation. Realistically, in a close game with hypothetically the five best players of the team on the court, Woolridge is the fourth or fifth scoring option. Remember the good ‘ol days of shuffling Przemek Karnowski on and off the court? That will be the solution if it ever gets to that in a game time scenario.

The free throw shooting isn’t all doom and gloom. An important note to make is that Filip Petrusev, the team’s statistically most effective player at drawing contact, is shooting 70 percent on the year, but is an 81 percent career free throw shooter. We should expect some room for improvement there.

The team’s second-most effective player at drawing contact, Drew Timme, is only at 66 percent (small sample size), but he showed against Arkansas Pine-Bluff he can drain free throws, when he went 7-for-9. With Timme, it is more of an eye test because of his youth, but it also seems like we should expect some improvement there.

Although Woolridge made seven trips to the charity stripe last night, that is an outlier for him in terms of quantity. Last season, with a higher percentage usage, Woolridge shot seven or more free throws just four times on the season (ironically, he also went 2-of-7 against UTA last season).

Now that you are done reading all of my excuses, as Keith noted in his observations from last night’s game, Gonzaga is currently ranked No. 239 in the country with a team 66.4 free throw percentage. The Zags haven’t shot that poorly from the line since 2010 when the team shot 66.7 percent. Without question, the Zags need to improve at the line—that is not debatable. The Zags are currently ranked No. 56 in the nation for FTA/FGA, so they have left quite a few points off the box score with all the misses.

It is also hard to measure because free throws are also a small sample size scenario this early on in the season, and with so many new faces, we don’t know for sure, if for example, Joel Ayayi is a career 60 percent shooter or if Drew Timme will only be able to muster 67 percent from the line. As a team, the Zags only would have needed five more free throws made to raise the overall percentage from 66 to 70.

Prior to last night’s game, the Zags were shooting a respectable 73 percent from the free throw line. Today, that number dropped to 66.4 percent. Against Arkansas Pine-Bluff, the Zags shot 31-for-39 as a team, so we know that ability is there. One game does not make a trend, and it is easier to get these bumps out of the way against worse teams. But as UT-Arlington showed last night, as long as the score is close, it doesn’t matter the discrepancy in competition—missing free throws can truly alter how the game closes out.

Gonzaga got a slight sniff of that last night. Hopefully, it is the last time that will happen this season.