Arizona’s offense has hit a wall, shooting below 33 percent in consecutive games for the first time in 18 years. Things were so bad on that end in Saturday’s ugly win over ASU that the Wildcats went nearly five minutes into the second half with more points from the foul line than the field.
“It kept us in the game,” UA coach Tommy Lloyd said of Arizona’s free throw shooting, which was 26 of 32 including 18 of 21 in the first half.
And as opponents continue to find ways to slow Arizona’s offense down, being both adept at the charity stripe—and a frequent visitor—could go a long way toward determining this team’s success.
For the season, the seventh-ranked Wildcats (17-2, 7-1 Pac-12) are shooting 73.3 percent from the line, which ranks 110th nationally. In conference play they’re at 74.3 percent, third-best in the league, and they’re fourth in free throw rate, which tracks the frequency a team gets to the line in relation to how much it shoots from the field.
The UA is at 34 percent in conference play, 33.3 percent for the season, but against ASU it was 54.2 percent (32 free throw attempts against 59 field goal attempts). The game before, at UCLA, it was 14.7 percent (11 to 75) as it made a season-low six free throws.
Arizona averages 21.5 free throw attempts per game, which is 20th nationally. It has taken 20 or more free throws in 10 games this season, winning all of them, and the 10 victories in that scenario are tied for ninth-most in the country.
Lloyd is leery to assume that Arizona can always get to the line that often, saying “I don’t know if you can always trust the whistles,” but as long as the Wildcats continue to play with an eye toward drawing fouls they should get enough calls to go their way.
There’s also the added bonus of fouls piling up for the other team in a way that impacts their ability to defend.
“When you play with force, a lot of times the interior defenders on the other team get in foul trouble,” Lloyd said. “Each one of those fouls gets you closer to the bonus. Once you’re in the bonus, you can get fouled at four to 50 feet from the basket and get points out of it. It just makes scoring easier. And that’s the approach, and it’s kind of a cumulative effort as I’ve talked about before. It’s just how do we want to impact the game. Offensively great pace, great ball movement, try to make good decisions, good shot selection, attack the offensive glass. If you put foul pressure on them and free throws are part of that, that’s a lot for the defense. It’s a lot of opportunities for them to make a mistake.”
Getting to the line is the first step. Making those free throws is another.
Seven of Arizona’s eight rotation players shoot better than 70 percent—Azuolas Tubelis is at 66.7 percent—which includes Christian Koloko and Oumar Ballo, who last season shot 62.5 and 55.2 percent, respectively, but are now at 75.7 and 70.5 percent.
That duo was 12 of 16 from the line against ASU.
“This summer I worked a lot with coach (Riccardo Fois),” Ballo said. “He helped me with shooting form so I work a lot. … Coach (Fois) told me to put (the ball) a little bit higher in front of my head so that it goes up. In the beginning it was not going in. I was like, ‘I don’t know if this is going to work.’ But I stick with it, and it finally worked out.”