For most teams, the free throw line is a safe place for a team to create easy scoring opportunities. In just last season, teams like Iowa and Maryland used their excellent play at the line to help get themselves in the NCAA Tournament and above the crucial 20-win mark on the season.
Unfortunately for Michigan State, the “charity” stripe was anything but charity for the team. All year, the Spartans were inconsistent at the free throw line. The star players had trouble. The rotational players had trouble. Even the bench had trouble at the line.
Not only did the Spartans finish at No. 338 nationally in free throw percentage, but they also finished at No. 347 in percent of points off free throws. For a team that not only made the NCAA Tournament, but was consistently one of the top teams in the Big Ten and the country, those are terrible numbers. What’s even more interesting is that Michigan State was actually 5th in the Big Ten in free throw attempts during conference play. The Spartans were at least decent at getting to the line, but they just couldn’t convert once they got there.
Of course, with fans looking ahead to the next season, the question becomes whether Michigan State can take a step forward in this category in 2015-16. Conventional wisdom suggests that the team will improve from No. 338 nationally in free throw percentage, but considering how badly they performed in the area last season, what are reasonable expectations for the Spartans?
Undoubtedly, any look at next season has to begin with last season and the first thing to note about last season for Michigan State on the free throw line is that outside of Branden Dawson, most of the top guys on the roster really weren’t that bad at the line. Bryn Forbes and Denzel Valentine were both north of 80 percent and Matt Costello and Travis Trice were both around the 70 percent mark. Sure, considering that Costello and Trice combined for just over six free throw attempts per game, improvement for either would have helped the team significantly, but none of those numbers are eyebrow raising by any means.
However, when a major contributor like Dawson shoots 49 percent on the season and key bench contributors like Tum Tum Nairn and Gavin Schilling shoot just above or below 50 percent, it’s a huge hit to the team’s performance in the category as a whole. It’s one thing to have a bench that is not great at free throw shooting, but when you add in one of the top players on the team and two starters in Costello and Trice that were decent, but not great free throw shooters, it’s simply too much to overcome and a team like Michigan State ends up outside the Top 300 in the category.
The good news heading into next season – at least in free throw shooting – is that Branden Dawson graduating should help things significantly. Dawson may have been a fantastic player for Michigan State during his career, but there’s no denying that he was a liability from the line last season. Plus, considering that his likely replacement, 4-star true freshman Deyonta Davis shot just shy of 70 percent from the line in high school, there could be a nice boost in free throw shooting there. Along with this, other struggling players like Nairn and Schilling were underclassmen and likely will see at least a slight boost heading into next season. With a starter and two other major contributors likely improving, that alone might be enough for Michigan State to at least become a mediocre free throw shooting team, which would be a significant improvement from its dreadful performance in 2014-15.
The other thing to consider is that although Michigan State was a terrible free throwing shooting overall last season, they did trend up and down over the course of the season and were trending up at the end of the year, especially compared to some of their rougher stretches of the season. Just take a look at their season trend.
The interesting thing about this chart is that it really gives an understanding of just how inconsistent Michigan State was not only on the free throw line, but in general last season. Clearly, things worked out pretty well with a overall record of 27-12 and a Final Four appearance, but free throw shooting was an issue all year and undoubtedly was a factor in many key losses including the devastating home loss against Texas Southern in non-conference play.
The goods news for Michigan State is that with the likely replacement of Branden Dawson with 4-star prospect Deyonta Davis, likely improvements from players like Nairn and Schilling, and the trend at the end of the season, there are real data points to believe that the Spartans can improve from one of the nation’s worst free throw shooting teams to at least average next year. If so, it would go a long way in helping to replace key departures like Dawson and Trice and get the Spartans in national contention.