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Arizona women’s basketball needs to address its free-throw issues

Officiating and free-throw shooting had a big impact in Eugene

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: JAN 30 Women’s - Arizona at Stanford Photo by Douglas Stringer/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Arizona head coach Adia Barnes has to be careful what she says about officiating these days. The Wildcats are heading into another game against Oregon, a team she felt benefited from the officiating when the two teams met three weeks ago. Regardless of how she feels about that today, there was another problem that day in Eugene. Arizona couldn’t hit the free throws they were given.

What does Arizona need to do against the Ducks on Friday?

Poor free-throw shooting has been a problem this season. In Division I women’s basketball, the best team free-throw percentage in the country is Iowa at 84.6 percent. The lowest is Winthrop at 54.9 percent. The Wildcats have used a hot streak over the past four games to pull their percentage up to 69.9 percent on the season, but that still leaves them at No. 180 among 356 DI teams according to stats service Her Hoop Stats.

The loss at Oregon can be blamed as much on what Arizona did in response to the officiating as anything else. There was a large disparity in trips to the line in that game, which both Barnes and the fans took objection to. The Ducks went 26 times while the Wildcats went just 10.

That wasn’t what doomed Arizona, though. Just as important, the Wildcats hit just five of the free throws they were awarded. In a two-point overtime loss, that was more than enough. It was also something that has a bigger long-term impact on the success of the team because it has been a nagging issue.

There’s another nagging issue that Arizona needs to address. Why do the Wildcats go to the line so seldom? For a team that has relied heavily on attacking guards and a high-scoring power forward for the past several years, Arizona would seem to have a style that would draw fouls at a higher rate than average. That just isn’t the case.

The Wildcats have drawn 20 or more free throws four times this season. The last time was against UCLA on Jan. 26.

“That’s my expectation with our personnel and our team,” Barnes said after the UCLA victory. “We should get 20 free throws a game.”

The problem is that they don’t get anywhere near that. The Wildcats have gone to the line 276 times in 18 games this season. That amounts to 15.3 free throws per game and places them 206th in DI for free throws attempted. Meanwhile, their opponents have been to the line 288 times in those 18 games.

It’s just as dismal when compared to other Pac-12 teams. Arizona is seventh in the league in total free throws attempted this year and eighth in free throws per game.

What is the problem?

When looking at the Pac-12 tendencies, it is difficult to know what will completely fix the issue. A close look at the numbers makes it clear that even teams that rely heavily on jump-shooting are getting to the line more than Arizona.

The Utah Utes attempt 27.6 three-point shots per game. That is far and away the most in the Pac-12. The next closest is Washington State at 22.1. Yet, the Utes are third in the Pac-12 in free throws attempted with 18.7 per game. That’s more than five additional free throws per game than Arizona takes.

The lack of whistles in their favor has been a problem for Arizona going back to at least the 2012-13 season according to Her Hoop Stats.* The Wildcats have been below the 50th percentile in free throw rate—the percentage of 2-point opportunities that result in free throws—since that season when they dropped to the 45th percentile. Arizona was just above the 50th percentile in free throws attempted per game that season, but the underlying issue was already there. Their two-point shots weren’t resulting in fouls on the opponent.

The next season, Arizona had dropped to the 2nd percentile. They have been in the bottom third of DI free throw rate in six of the 10 seasons beginning with 2012-13 and have broken the 40th percentile in free throw rate just three times. They have been in the bottom third of free throws attempted per game in seven of the last 10 seasons.

Getting a dominant point guard who made her living driving to the bucket didn’t fix the problem. Neither did getting a McDonald’s All-American who plays in the paint. Improving as a team and getting ranked didn’t get them the respect of the officials, either.

In the WNIT-winning season of 2018-19, the team led by Aari McDonald and Cate Reese finished in the 32nd percentile in free throws attempted per game and the 41st in free throw rate. The next year, when the Wildcats were ranked for most of the season and looked destined to have at least a No. 3 seed before the pandemic wiped out the NCAA Tournament? They dropped to the 22nd percentile in free throws attempted, although their free throw rate ticked up a bit to the 46th percentile.

Then came last year. A preseason Associated Press All-American point guard and reigning Ann Meyers Drysdale Award winner who lived by getting into the paint, who was faster than most of her opponents, and had a double-digit scoring power forward as a second option? It didn’t matter. Even as the Wildcats marched to the national title game, their free throw rate plunged to the 33rd percentile.

Arizona goes to the free-throw line on 15.6 percent of its 2-point shot attempts this season. The Wildcats ended last year with the same percent of their 2-pointers taking them to the line. This season, that rate puts them in the 41st percentile, but the fouls aren’t coming more often for the team; they’re just coming less often for a lot of other DI teams.

When compared to Utah, which gets more free throws than anyone in the Pac-12 except Stanford and Colorado, the contrast is stark. The Utes have had a free throw rate of almost 21 percent the past two seasons. They stand at 20.8 this year after being 20.7 last season. That’s the 97th and 96th percentile, respectively.

The Utes have been at the 60th percentile or above in free throw rate for four of the past five seasons. That’s remarkable for a team that relies so much on outside shooting. Utah has had a 3-point rate of 32 percent or above for four straight seasons, peaking at 39 percent this season.

“Control what we can control”

So, what can Arizona do to get the calls? Barnes thinks there are options that the Wildcats are not taking advantage of.

“I think for us and just as a team—these are some areas are working on—is be a little stronger inside, guards and posts,” Barnes said. “So going to the rim we know we’re going against big players—against Stanford, Cameron Brink is tall and athletic—but not like shying away from the contact. So that’s one thing we’re working on consistently. As opposed to players you know going around them. Also not fading away from contact because you don’t get the calls.”

She also thinks that more players need to step up and draw the contact. Right now, Shaina Pellington and Reese are taking most of the free throws. Last year, it was Aari McDonald and Reese. She wants more players to take it upon themselves to get into positions to get fouled.

“We have to have more people driving and being aggressive and getting to the rim to get to the free-throw line,” Barnes said. “So those are things that we have to work on. You know, because Sam is shooting the ball more, but she doesn’t attack the rim a lot. So when she does, that’s good. So being able to do those things is important because that’s...free money.”

Once the whistles come, Arizona must be ready to get the full return, though. That was a problem for much of the season.

After Barnes went on her tirade against the officials at Oregon, she said that the Wildcats had to “control what we can control.” That means continuing to improve their foul shooting—especially one particular player. That player has done that since the trip to Eugene.

“The common denominator of that is Shaina Pellington,” Barnes said after the UCLA game. “Shaina Pellington getting to a line and making free throws. I mean, she was 6 of 7, and her and Cate are the primary people that are taking our free throws.”

Pellington had one more poor game from the stripe after her 4-for-8 day at Oregon. The next game, she went 2 for 6 from the line against Utah. Since then, she has turned on the jets. The starting point guard was 14 for 17 against Colorado, UCLA, and Stanford.

Now, it’s time to put it all together and use it against the Ducks.

*Her Hoop Stats only has data going back to the 2010-11 season.