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Purdue Basketball: At The Line

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Purdue finally has an answer for not shooting well and it’s shooting well.

NCAA Basketball: Purdue at Northwestern Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

I have been meaning to write about Purdue’s free throw shooting for days. Exciting, I know.

But when I checked to see Purdue’s team percentages, a curious number showed up.

71.

No, that’s not their percentage at the line. That’s actually 75.3%, good for 71st best in the nation. This didn’t make sense.

What do you do when the numbers feel like a lie?

You change the data.

Take out the bench players: Eastern, Haarms, Taylor, Eifert, Ewing, and Luuuuuuuuuuuce.

All of a sudden, the numbers start to match the eye test.

Purdue’s starting lineup has shot nearly 85% from the free throw line this year. They’ve made 129 of their 152 free throws through 8 game. That’s quite good.

In comparison, the starting lineup for Purdue last year attempted 151 free throws through their first 8 games. They made just more than 68% of those attempts. Despite the loss of a foul-drawing behemoth in Caleb Swanigan, this Purdue team has drawn more attempts at the line at this point in the season while also making a significantly higher percent of them.

Why is this significant?

Because this is how teams that rely on their perimeter shot can survive a bad shooting night.

Against Tennessee in the Battle 4 Atlantis opening game, Purdue shot 37% from the field. They turned the ball over 18 times and gave up 20 offensive rebounds. Despite this, Purdue had the lead late in both regulation and overtime and it took a dramatic comeback for Tennessee to clutch victory from the jaws of defeat.

Purdue was only in the game because they had a +10 advantage at the free throw line. They went to the line 25 times and made 21 of them. A bench player never took a shot from the stripe.

The next night, Purdue would get upset again to a Western Kentucky team, 77-74, that frankly outplayed them all game. (Those are Coach Painter’s words, not mine.) The Boilermakers shot just under 30% from deep.

But the game was still close and Purdue had a chance to win because once again they excelled at the line. Grady Eifert would go 1 of 2 from the line, and the starters would go a collective 16 of 18 from the line.

Haas is the reason for the season.

You don’t look at Purdue’s roster and think this team should get to the line often. In fact, it’s crazy this starting five has taken one more free throw than a team that started both Swanigan and Haas last year.

But Isaac Haas, in just over 20 minutes a night, has been once again one of the most effective players in the nation at drawing fouls. His fouls drawn per 40 minutes is at a career high of 8.6 and is 19th best in the nation after the game against Louisville. And make no mistake about, the Boilers won that game because Haas was able to get their big men into foul trouble and get Purdue into the bonus early. This is not a fluke. He does this almost every night, especially against the good teams.

It is perhaps the one way Purdue knows they are going to get easy points.

And it’s not just that Haas gets himself to the line. College basketball games can be shifted by getting to the bonus early. Purdue gets to the bonus early. That means every little bump, every over the back, and every blocking foul at the start of a drive means free throws and easy points for a team that struggles to create them organically. It gets into the heads of defenders. Lanes will open when players know they’re giving up free throws for any foul.

System-wide improvement

But getting to the free throw line doesn’t matter if you’re not making them. Purdue’s starters are making them at an incredible rate of nearly 85%. The improvement has been across the board.

Isaac Haas started his career as a 50% free throw shooter his freshman year. He’s turned himself into a 70% free throw shooter the last two years. Now, he’s making his free throws at an 80% clip.

Carsen Edwards was not a very good free throw shooter for a guard last year. He made 73% of his attempts and went through stretches of a lack of confidence at the line. This year, he’s raised his mark to 84% and had a stretch of 20+ free throws made in a row before the Louisville game. But most importantly, Edwards is learning how to draw fouls at the collegiate level. He’s the one guy that has the explosion to get to the hoop. Last year he didn’t know how to use his strength to absorb contact and get to the line. This year he’s drawing 5.6 fouls a game per forty minutes, up from just 3.9 last year.

P.J. Thompson uncharacteristically struggled from the line last year. Not only did he miss a couple huge attempts late in games, but he dropped from 83% his sophomore year to just 70% last year. This year he has made 11 of his 12 attempts.

Vincent Edwards has always been a great free throw shooter. This year he’s been a man burning the nets. He’s made 25 of his 27 attempts.

As for Dakota, he’s always been a good free throw shooter. This year, he’s stayed almost exactly where he was last year at just under 83% for the year, but the big thing for him is his number of attempts. He’s grown craftier over the years, using the pump fake to get his defender in the air, or using his stop and go to create body contact. He’s taken 23 free throws through the first 8 games. Last year, he had 39 attempts for the whole season.

So what you’re saying is...

Purdue might finally have an answer to what happens when shots stop falling, when games get close and you need just one bucket to put the team away.

With Haas’s ability to draw fouls in the paint and Carsen’s ability to attack guys off the dribble, the Boilers haven’t taken a step back in getting to the line despite the loss of one of the most prolific free throw shooters in the country last year.

And they’re making them. The guys that will be on the court in crunch times are shooting 85% from the line. That’s why you start four seniors.

That’s also how you win big games going forward.

Purdue shot 32 free throws against Louisville Tuesday night and won by 9. They shot 22 in the same game last year and lost by 7.

Sometimes the answer comes free.