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Inside the Numbers: A way too deep dive into Virginia’s troubles getting to the foul line

jay huff uva pitt
Jay Huff fights in the paint. Photo courtesy Atlantic Coast Conference.

Our colleague Jerry Ratcliffe has an insightful column on his site addressing Virginia’s inability to get to the free-throw line.

Jerry and I traded a couple of emails after I read the piece, starting with my note on quick research from Sports-Reference.com about how this isn’t actually a one-off kind of thing.

Indeed, the trend takes us back several years.

Diving into the numbers

UVA averages an ACC-low 10.1 free-throw attempts per game in conference play, and its 11.6 attempts per game overall ranks 347th from the 357 teams in D1.

And then this nugget from KenPom.com: the ‘Hoos get 13.6 percent of their points from free throws, 339th nationally, and that number goes down in ACC games, to 12.2 percent, 15th, dead last.

The suggestion: that Virginia isn’t being aggressive enough to get to the line, and thus is missing out on easy points, which, when you consider that the Cavaliers lead the ACC in free-throw shooting percentage, at 80.4 percent, nearly two percentage points ahead of second-place Syracuse (78.5 percent), what are we looking at here, in terms of points per game?

Good question.

Pitt leads the ACC this year in attempts per game, at 22.1, and in makes, at 14.8.

Virginia, at 9.3 made free throws per game, is spotting 5.5 points per game to Pitt.

Side note here: in UVA’s 73-66 win over Pitt on Feb. 6, the ‘Hoos were 11-of-14 at the line, and Pitt was 10-of-15.

You can have fun with small sample sizes.

The easy summation you can make from comparing UVA and Pitt over the course of the season to date would be to say, be more aggressive like Pitt, Virginia adds 5.5 points a game to its total.

Meh. Can’t do that.

Jeff Capel has built his team to be post-oriented. According to Hoop-Math.com, the Panthers get 41.9 percent of their shots at the rim.

Virginia, per Hoop-Math, gets 32.6 percent of its shots at the rim.

Looking at the raw numbers, then, Pitt scores 27.9 points per game on its rim makes, Virginia 21.6.

So now, we’re at Pitt’s aggressiveness translating to not just the additional 5.5 free-throw points a game, but a total of 11.8 extra points a game from free throws and rim makes.

Pitt, then, surely has to be well ahead of Virginia in the offensive efficiency numbers.

Ah, no.

Pitt is 11th in the ACC, per KenPom, scoring 1.082 points per possession in all games, and 10th in conference games, at 1.040 points per possession.

Virginia: third in the ACC in all games, scoring 1.151 points per possession, and third in conference games, at 1.091.

The two teams ahead of Virginia: Florida State (1.184 PPP in all games, 1.152 PPP in ACC games), and Duke (1.154 PPP in all games, 1.114 PPP in ACC games).

FSU is third in the ACC in free-throw attempts (19.5 per game) and second in makes (14.4 a game).

Duke is 12th in attempts (14.3 a game) and 14th in makes (9.9 a game).

One other ACC team averages more than 20 free-throw attempts per game – North Carolina.

The Tar Heels average 21.6 attempts per, and are third in makes (14.3 per game).

UNC is ninth in all games in offensive efficiency (1.095 PPP) and also ninth in ACC games (1.042 PPP).

Getting to the line alone, it would seem, isn’t the salve that it’s being made out to be.

Trendlines

Tony Bennett’s breakthrough team was the 2013-2014 group that won 30 games, the ACC regular-season and tournament titles, advanced to the Sweet Sixteen.

Let’s look at that team’s attack profile:

  • Free throws per game: 14.4/21.4
  • Percentage of points from FTs: 21.8
  • Shots at rim per game: 11.4/19.8
  • Attack points per game: 37.2
  • KenPom offensive efficiency: 1.148 PPP (27)

The 2014-2015 team was 19-0, 28-1, won 30, but got upset in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

  • Free throws per game: 13.1/18.1
  • Percentage of points from FTs: 20.1
  • Shots at rim per game: 11.9/19.1
  • Attack points per game: 36.9
  • KenPom offensive efficiency: 1.156 PPP (21)

The 2015-2016 is the best UVA team to not win a national title.

  • Free throws per game: 12.8/17.1
  • Percentage of points from FTs: 18.1
  • Shots at rim per game: 13.4/20.6
  • Attack points per game: 39.2
  • KenPom offensive efficiency: 1.206 PPP (8)

The one “down” year in the recent run was 2016-2017. Only 23 wins and a five seed in the NCAAs.

  • Free throws per game: 9.9/13.9
  • Percentage of points from FTs: 15.0
  • Shots at rim per game: 11.2/18.5
  • Attack points per game: 32.3
  • KenPom offensive efficiency: 1.122 PPP (50)

The 2017-2018 team is the best team ever to not win an NCAA Tournament game.

  • Free throws per game: 10.0/13.3
  • Percentage of points from FTs: 14.9
  • Shots at rim per game: 10.0/16.3
  • Attack points per game: 30.0
  • KenPom offensive efficiency: 1.152 PPP (30)

You may remember the 2018-2019 team for the banner that it has hanging in JPJ.

  • Free throws per game: 11.7/15.7
  • Percentage of points from FTs: 16.4
  • Shots at rim per game: 11.6/18.0
  • Attack points per game: 34.9
  • KenPom offensive efficiency: 1.234 PPP (2)

You may remember the 2019-2020 team for its difficulties throwing a ball in the ocean from the shoreline.

  • Free throws per game: 9.6/13.4
  • Percentage of points from FTs: 16.9
  • Shots at rim per game: 10.6/18.0
  • Attack points per game: 30.8
  • KenPom offensive efficiency: 0.993 PPP (234)

And now, to current day.

  • Free throws per game: 9.3/11.6
  • Percentage of points from FTs: 13.6
  • Shots at rim per game: 10.8/17.2
  • Attack points per game: 30.9
  • KenPom offensive efficiency: 1.151 PPP (15)

Analysis

  • The 2018-2019 team is the best offensive group of the bunch: 1.234 PPP. It was ranked fourth among the eight in free throw attempts and attack points.
  • The noticeable drop-off in free-throw attempts came with the swapping out of the Malcolm Brogdon-Joe Harris-Justin Anderson-Anthony Gill personnel group with the Ty Jerome-Kyle Guy-De’Andre Hunter personnel group. You go from 21.4, 18.1 and 17.1 attempts per game to 13.9, 13.3 and 15.7 per game from the first group to the second. The post-Jerome-Guy-Hunter era has us at 13.4 and 11.6.
  • This year’s group is seventh among the eight in shots at the rim per game. The team that was eighth: the 31-3 team that was the #1 overall national seed in 2017-2018.
  • This year’s group is fifth among the eight in PPP. Teams are clearly less efficient this year compared to past years, though. It’s 15th nationally, a ranking that would come in third among the eight.
  • This year’s group is averaging .6744 free-throw attempts per shot attempt at the rim. This is by far the lowest ratio from among these eight teams. The next lowest: the .7444 per rim shot in 2019-2020. Five of the teams averaged over .8000 free-throw attempts per rim shot, and the 2013-2014 team averaged 1.081.

Commentary

The 2015-2016 team is the outlier here. You had Brogdon driving and Gill back to the basket in the post. Classic old-school basketball, and it showed in the numbers: 39.2 attack points per game, 20.6 shot attempts at the rim per game.

And yet the 2018-2019 team that was built around perimeter guys, scored 4.3 fewer attack points per game, put up 2.6 fewer shots at the rim and 1.4 fewer free-throw attempts per game, was better – 0.028 points per possession better, which over the course of 60 possessions a game translates to 1.68 points per game better.

That’s the sliver of difference between an Elite Eight team and a national-title team.

Note that the team that won the title was the team that didn’t get to the line as often as any of the Brogdon-Harris-Anderson-Gill teams.

It’s one criterion, is the point here – how often you get to the foul line.

The 2020-2021 UVA team isn’t built like the 2013-2016 UVA teams.

It’s built more like the 2016-2019 UVA teams, the last of which hung a banner.

Final word

Having narrowed it down, that we should be comparing rosters based on how they’re constructed, something stands out.

Looking at the numbers, what I see is 0.8 fewer makes at the rim, 0.8 fewer shots at the rim, and 4.1 fewer free-throw attempts from 2018-2019 to 2020-2021.

Is “finesse-y”-ness the problem here? Or should the kids learn from a pro wrestling trainer how to sell better?

Story by Chris Graham


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