Notre Dame is a good free-throw shooting team. The players who hoist up most of its attempts are, by and large, capable shooters.
When you lead the nation in field-goal percentage – even after a 33.9 percent effort in a home loss to Virginia – you don’t expect to struggle from the free-throw line.
Over the course of a long season, however, even the best free-throw shooting teams hit a snag. Notre Dame (15-2, 3-1) has not saved its best for last through the first half of the 2014-15 season, particularly on the last 16 attempts.
After hitting their first 15 against North Carolina in Chapel Hill, the Irish missed their last four against the Tar Heels – two each by senior captain Pat Connaughton and sophomore Steve Vasturia – yet still held on for a 71-70 upset victory over North Carolina.
Saturday, in its 62-56 loss to No. 3 Virginia, Notre Dame made just 6-of-12 from the line, including a missed front end of a one-and-one by senior Jerian Grant with 1:03 remaining and the chance to pull within three of the Cavaliers.
The 50 percent shooting from the line ended a nine-game streak in which the Irish converted at least 68 percent of their free-throw attempts. Misses on 10 of their last 16 attempts dropped the Irish to 71.8 percent for the year, which is still good enough for 76th in the country out of 351 teams.
“It would be putting too much light on it right now, especially with the guys who missed them,” said Irish head coach Mike Brey, prior to the Virginia game and reflecting upon the late misses against North Carolina.
“When you go 15-for-15, I’m a firm believer in the law of averages. When we’ve had those (situations) here in my program, I think 95 percent of the time, we haven’t said, ‘Everybody shoot 25 more free throws!’
“Our guys are hard on themselves. I don’t want them hanging their heads. They’re probably (shooting more) on their own.”
Brey’s philosophy – at least publicly – has always been to limit talk of free-throw shooting. The Irish head coach is among a small percentage of coaches in the country when it comes to not saying something that might shake the psyche of his players.
Unfortunately for the Irish, it was career 59.7 free-throw shooter Zach Auguste, true freshman Martin Geben, and Vasturia – struggling from the field as well as the line against Virginia – who took some of the key free-throw attempts against the Cavaliers. Sophomore V.J. Beachem missed a free throw for the first time this season, and Demetrius Jackson missed one early as the Irish were 2-of-6 from the line in the first half.
And yet there has been somewhat of a trend. Of the 17 games played so far this season, eight have seen the Irish shoot less than their percentage on the season, although most of those came in November.
Lately, guys like Connaughton – who shot 83.3 percent from the line in 2013-14 – and Grant, a 79.7 percent career shooter -- have struggled down the stretch. Grant missed a free throw at home against Georgia Tech with 26 seconds remaining that helped send the game into the first of two overtimes.
Connaughton, one of the most clutch performers to play for Brey in his 15-year reign, missed a pair of free throws in the first overtime that would have helped salt the game away. Grant made one-of-two with 1:18 left in the second overtime.
While ranking among the nation’s top 22 percent in free-throw percentage, Notre Dame is tied for 227th nationally in free-throw attempts per game at 19.4, which is an unusually low number for a team that averages 83.3 points per game. Most of the teams that are comparable to the Irish in free-throw attempts average 12-to-20 points less per game.
Auguste leads the Irish in attempts with just 77 (4.5 per game). Grant is next at 74. Connaughton, for a guy who does so much quality work around the hoop, has attempted just 31 free throws (1.8 per game).
In other words, it’s hard to get a rhythm at the foul line when you get there so infrequently. Of course, that’s a reflection of Notre Dame’s strengths and weaknesses, too. The Irish are scoring at a high pace due to a high field-goal percentage. One of Notre Dame’s weaknesses is consistent scoring along the front line.
So why will Notre Dame’s free-throw numbers likely get better? Mainly because the Irish have a team full of solid, good-if-not-great free-throw shooters. None have proven to be prolific; none average 80 percent-plus in their careers.
But other than Auguste – who has improved from 53.7 percent his first two years to 66.2 in 2014-15 – Notre Dame’s other starters all are above 70 percent, including Grant at 79.6, Connaughton at 75.8 and Jackson at 76.3. Vasturia has crept up to 70.9, and sixth man Beachem has made 14-of-18 in his career (77.7 percent).
Over the course of a long college basketball team, even the best free-throw shooters go through a lull. But for the Irish to avoid the rash of close losses from a year ago – nine of Notre Dame’s 12 ACC losses last year were by single digits – they’ll have to do a better job at the charity stripe with the game(s) on the line.