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The Bounce: Baylor needs to Fix its Free Throw Problem

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Making free throws is a concern, but there is a more pressing problem with Baylor at the line. Plus: relieved for DiDi, football fundamentals, and quarterback discomfort.

NCAA Basketball: Baylor at Texas Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

This week, ESPN’s John Gasaway ran a column in which he identified fatal flaws of contending teams. Gasaway identified Baylor’s fatal flaw as its three-point shooting. With respect, I disagree.

Baylor’s three lead guards - Jared Butler, MaCio Teague, and Davion Mitchell - are each capable shooters. Mitchell is weaker than the other two (32.4%), but the trio averaged 35.3% from the three-point line. Butler, who averaged 38.1% himself, launched over 200 threes, which was significantly more than either Teague or Mitchell. Many of those threes from Butler came as the shot clock wound down. He bailed Baylor’s offense out a number of times when the plan didn’t work, which makes his percentage from last season even more impressive.

I expect those numbers to hold generally true in the coming season. Butler and Teague are flat good from three, and Mitchell is serviceable. Reports are that the reserve guards show a nearly equal prowess from deep to the graduated Devonte Bandoo. With another year under their belts, it’s difficult to see the long ball failing Baylor’s guards.

It’s a different line that worries me. I have an anecdotal sense of belief when Baylor let’s the three ball fly. It sinks to my stomach when someone aside from Teague steps up to the free throw line.

Baylor shot an abysmal 69% from the charity stripe last season. The only player on the roster to make over 80% of his free throws was Teague. He also took the highest number of attempts. The other players to attempt a significant number of free throws (more than 60) averaged 63.5%. Mark Vital obviously tanks that number quite a bit (41.8% on 67 attempts), but Mitchell was also a major problem. He made only 66% of his free throw attempts, and he was third among returning players in free throw attempts and is a major ball handler for the Bears.

While the shooting percentage from the line is poor, however, it’s not even my biggest worry. I’m more worried about Baylor’s ability to get to the line, otherwise known as free throw rate. Free throw rate measures a team’s ability to get to the free throw line, measured as free throw attempts per field goal attempts. Baylor’s free throw rate was only 30.8% last season, 228th in the country, per KenPom.com. The Bears’ best and most important player, Butler, had a personal free throw rate of 22.4%. That’s only 2.9 free throws per game. That is perhaps the most worrisome number of all.

Free throw rate and free throw attempts are a good measure of aggressiveness, especially for perimeter players who have to work harder to get shots at the rim than big men. The ability to generate points when everything else is ground down (in much the way Jimmy Butler manufactured points for the Heat in the NBA Finals) is the skill of star players. For Baylor, Jared Butler - the pre-season player of the year - is the guy who will have the ball in his hands at key moments. If he can’t assert himself and warp defenses through driving and foul drawing, Bears fans will be watching a large number of last-second threes launched again this season.

Maybe that won’t be too bad if the three-point shooting can stay steady or climb higher, but a team that can’t score at all three levels isn’t likely to win a national title.

Pickup Game

  • Very happy and relieved to hear that DiDi Richards, who suffered a spinal injury in a collision with Moon Ursin in practice, seems to be on a path to recovery and a return to the court. Those sorts of injuries are always scary, and coaches remain cautious about moving her along too quickly, but Richards herself sounds to be in good spirits. Very glad for tragedy to be avoided.
  • Listening to Dave Aranda’s presser on Monday, it sounds like lack of practice continues to be a major issue for Baylor and especially the offense. He repeatedly circled back to the need to develop fundamentals, nail down that a 10-yard break doesn’t break at 12 or 8 yards, and to get the ball out quickly. My amateur eye saw a Charlie Brewer double-clutching repeatedly throughout the game against TCU, a problem that is usually attributed to discomfort, either with his reads or with his receivers. Aranda’s comments seem to suggest both are a problem.
  • If this is the problem for Brewer, could it also be a reason we haven’t seen a switch to Gerry Bohanon? With practice reps in short supply in Waco, one would imagine a lion share of those have gone to the incumbent starter. Even so, Brewer is uncomfortable in game action. Bohanon isn’t likely to solve that particular issue at the quarterback position.