LAWRENCE — Bill Self’s familiarity with this statistic is admittedly limited, but the Kansas basketball coach knows enough to realize it’s far from a good sign for his squad.
The No. 14 Jayhawks (9-2) rank 350th out of 351 teams in Division I in terms of percentage of free throws attempted versus field goals attempted, a statistic kept at advanced analytics outlet KenPom.com. Through Monday’s game, a 109-64 victory over Omaha at Allen Fieldhouse which saw KU attempt nine free throws, the team has a ratio of 18.3 percent in the advanced metric — or, 132 free throw attempts versus 721 field goal attempts.
“I guess that’s a legitimate stat. I’ve never heard of that one before,” Self said. “But yeah, we shoot so little free throws. … That’s an alarming stat.”
Self initiated the discussion about the statistic and the general topic of the Jayhawks’ struggles getting to the charity stripe when asked his biggest concerns ahead of the team’s final game before Big 12 play, a 10 p.m. Thursday clash with Stanford (6-6) at Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, Calif.
It doesn’t take a subscription to an advanced analytics outlet to grasp KU’s free throw woes.
The Jayhawks are averaging only 12 free throw attempts and have posted a single-digit total in that category in four straight games, a stretch which includes back-to-back defeats to Washington and Arizona State. KU has single-digit free throw attempts in five of its last six contests, the only outlier a ho-hum 13-attempt effort against Syracuse.
“We go to Nebraska and, granted, they didn’t shoot free throws either, but we shoot eight free throws against Nebraska and we shoot nine (Monday),” Self said. “When is the last time a Kansas team in two consecutive games shot a total of 17 free throws?”
It certainly didn’t occur last season on a group which reached at least 17 attempts in 31 of its 36 contests.
Perhaps the Jayhawks’ struggles getting to the line wouldn’t be as noticeable without the fresh memory of that squad, which was incredibly proficient in that area. The 2016-17 team averaged 22 free throw attempts, held to a single-digit attempt total in only one game.
Either Frank Mason or Josh Jackson led the team in free throw attempts in all but five contests. Mason averaged 6.6 free throw attempts last season, while Jackson reached 4.9 attempts per game. Both would dwarf this season’s leader Devonte’ Graham, who is averaging a career-high 3.1 attempts.
Mason and Jackson, of course, are now making a living in the NBA.
“Who drives it for us when we get in there?” Self asked. “Devonte’ does a little bit but he’s not like Frank, and nobody’s like Josh. We shoot it pretty well which I know can kind of cover some things, but in a tight game where you’re not shooting the basketball, you’ve got to figure out a way to get to the line.”
Indeed, the Mason-and-Jackson-led charge at the line proved invaluable a number of times last season.
The duo combined to get to the stripe 29 times in an 87-80 victory Jan. 14 over Oklahoma State; the Jayhawks attempted a staggering 45 free throws in that contest. Mason went 12 for 12 from the line in a 73-68 victory Feb. 1 against Baylor; KU had 27 free throw attempts in that contest versus the Bears’ six. Jackson had a team-high seven attempts in an 80-79 victory Feb. 11 at Texas Tech; his go-ahead make with 2.8 seconds left was the last of 19 tries for the Jayhawks.
The most glaring example of the importance of free throws to last year’s team came in the next game, an eventual 84-80 overtime victory Feb. 13 over West Virginia at Allen Fieldhouse. The Jayhawks, who overcame 14-point deficit in the game’s final three minutes, shot 44 free throws, led by Mason’s 16-for-18 performance. His final two conversions with seven seconds left forced the overtime period.
To wrap the comparison, consider this: Last year’s team finished with a free throws attempted versus field goals attempted ratio of 36 percent.
Getting to the free throw line, Self said, is a somewhat coachable trait, but he indicated it may not be a skill set in this current team’s DNA.
“The reality of it is that’s not who we are,” Self said. “Malik (Newman) doesn’t do that. Malik’s shot 11 free throws this year — 11, total. Going into (Monday’s) game, Doke (Azubuike) has shot one free throw in his last five game — one. If it’s not for Devonte’, we don’t shoot any free throws, and we should be a decent free throw shooting team, minus the big fella.
“We’ve just got to do a better job of driving it.”
One reason for the big dip in free throw attempts may be the team’s reliance on 3-pointers. KU is attempting 26.6 shots from beyond the arc per game — 4.7 more than the total posted by last year’s Jayhawks, who were no slouches from 3-point range themselves.
Self also speculated rule changes are causing teams nationwide to guard differently and generally shy away from pressure, which leads to less fouling and free throw attempts. There’s more ball-and-body movement this year, he said, which has created less contact and fewer teams reaching the bonus.
The KU coach, though, was quick to absolve one party of any blame, and in the process revealed one silver lining of the struggles getting to the line — Jayhawk opponents are attempting only 15.7 free throws per game this season, held to single-digit totals in three of the last seven contests.
“It’s not the officiating, trust me, because we’re not fouling either,” Self said. “The game was over in an hour and 40 minutes (Monday), so (TV) had a lot of time to fill, I know, because they had to interview Svi (Mykhailiuk) for about 10 minutes. I bet that was a fun interview with understanding Ukrainian English.
“But yeah, we’ve got to figure out a way to stop the clock and get to the free throw line.”