Free throw shooting problematic for Eagles going forward
Eagle basketball analyst Austin Sternlicht takes a look at one of the team’s glaring issues so far this season
The free-throw line is nicknamed “the charity stripe” for a reason. It’s a simple, 15-foot, uncontested shot. But for the AU men’s basketball team, it has been anything but charitable this season.
The Eagles were able to pull out a win against Western Illinois 57-50 to snap their five-game losing streak to start the season, but once again struggled severely on free-throw attempts. Engaged in a close game throughout, the Eagles had many chances to add some insurance at the foul line, but struggled to convert throughout the game.
With five minutes and eleven seconds left in the second half and the Eagles up 49-45, sophomore guard Delante Jones missed two free throws that would have put the Eagles up by six points. Later, with just one minute and 27 seconds left and the Eagles up 51-48, freshman guard Sa’eed Nelson missed the front end of a one-and-one that could have put the Eagles up by as many as five points.
Giving credit where credit is due, senior forward Leon Tolksdorf, who had taken just 14 free throws in his college career, was the one who helped the Eagles seal the deal at the foul line. Tolksdorf stepped to the line after being intentionally fouled with 25 seconds left and the Eagles up 51-50. Facing a one-and-one, the 6’8” big man calmly swished both foul shots to put the Eagles up by three. Jones put the finishing touches on the win with two free throws to put AU up 55-50 with 17 seconds left.
Overall though, the Eagles shot just 12-23 from the foul line, equating to just 52 percent. Barely converting more than half of its free throws has come back to haunt the Eagles on multiple occasions. In a 72-62 loss at Akron, the Eagles went 9-17 from the line. The next game, a 73-65 loss to Wagner, AU went 11-20 at the line.
Through six games, the Eagles are shooting just 58 percent from the foul line. Only seven other Division I schools are shooting worse than that. What’s incredibly concerning is that some of the Eagles’ best players are struggling mightily with free throws. After taking nearly 130 free throws last season and shooting at practically a 70 percent rate, Jones is 9-20 at the line thus far.
Senior guard Charlie Jones, who shot 70 percent from the line last year, is only 1-5 so far. Freshman forward Mark Gasperini, the team’s third leading scorer is 4-9 from the line. Nelson, who leads the team in free throws taken with 39, is hitting his free throws on a more consistent basis. But even he is at just 61 percent, an underwhelming number for a point guard.
Despite the struggles, head coach Mike Brennan looks at his team’s free throw struggling woes from a positive perspective.
“Obviously we’ll work on it,” Brennan said. “I’m just happy we’re getting fouled. We used to be a team that shoots four, five free-throws a game. So the fact that we’re being aggressive and actually getting ourselves to the line is a good thing, but we’ll work on it when there’s time. “
Brennan brings up a good point. With such a young team, Brennan needs to make sure his players have learned the Princeton-style offense and defensive rotations. Without a complete understanding of those, it won’t matter how well AU shoots from the line because they won’t be in any games. The hope is that once everyone is comfortable with running the offense and knows where to be and what to do defensively, they will have much more time to practice fundamentals like foul shooting.
The good news for the Eagles is that this is the ideal time to be struggling in such an important area. When conference play comes around, the Eagles will need to make the most of every opportunity because one play could end up being the difference.