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Very Serious Case Study: Free Throw Defense

Indiana's much-maligned defense has been excelling at one defensive metric this season, so let's break down how they do it.

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Early on this season, Indiana's defense has drawn some pretty harsh reviews from analysts and writers of both the local and national variety. This criticism isn't undeserved, as the Hoosiers have struggled to prevent some of the worst teams in the country from piling in points and rank 155th in defensive efficiency. The individual defensive rankings are even worse:

  • eFG%: 227th
  • TO%: 211th
  • OR%: 270th
  • 3P%: 193rd
  • 2P%: 235th
  • Block %: 257th
Out of 351 Division I teams, that's a whole lot of bad. But the good folks at CrimsonCast have may have found a glimmer of hope on the defensive side of the ball:

Now, I don't think is funny at all. Serious statistical analysis coupled with even more serious film study is not something to be taken lightly. This is not a laughing matter; dismissing this without using every tool at our disposal to figure out its purpose would be the real laughing matter. And a tragedy. There are times, as a semi-amateur college sports blogger that one must roll up their sleeves and get down and dirty with the numbers.

QUESTION: Just what in the hell are the Hoosiers doing to make people shoot free throws so poorly?

Shooting free throws should be easy. I like to take an objective approach in determining which components of basketball are easy and which are not. Essentially, if I can do them with some modicum of consistency, they are easy and Division 1 players should be able to do them. Why? Because I am a god-awful basketball player who didn't spend enough of his childhood swishing threes in my driveway like a good Indiana kid. I played video games in the basement until I resolved to start speaking to girls and now I run a blog, give me your money.

Here is a non-comprehensive list of things that I have deemed as difficult:

  • Dribbling
  • Running up and down the court with no breaks
  • Doing both of those first two things at the same time
  • Shooting three pointers
  • Shooting two pointers
  • Dunking
And here is a COMPREHENSIVE list of things that I have deemed as easy.
  • Setting picks without fouling
  • Shooting free throws
That said, the majority of free throws I shoot happen in a much different environment. When college players are doing it, there are six really big dudes standing in front of him and watching, with anywhere from 3,000 - 30,000 spectators watching intently in the same room and millions more across the globe on television. When I shoot free throws, I'm sharing a gym with no more than six other people who are probably not watching and don't really care about my free throws or my life.

When I first saw Indiana was excelling at Free Throw "defense," I just assumed they had played a bunch of terrible free throw shooting teams. BUT LOOK AT THIS:

FT Shooting %
Pittsburgh 73.6%
UNC Greensboro 59.8%
Eastern Washington 58.0%
Lamar 58.9%
Southern Methodist 75.9%
Texas Southern 62.0%
Mississippi Valley St. 66.7%
(oh nope wait that's exactly what happened uh oh pressing on anyway)

SMU and Pitt are the only two teams in the top-100 for FT shooting and they combined for 24 attempts in their games against the Hoosiers. Indiana has been excellent at not sending guys to the charity stripe, reducing a team's chances to overcome a few misses. BUT, their 58.3% dFT% mark means they held everyone under their (mostly) terrible averages except for EASTERN WASHINGTON, who (OF COURSE) shot 66.7% from the charity stripe in their big win over the Hoosiers.

Everyone wanted to talk rim defense after that game but maybe they defend those free throws a little bit better and you win the dang ball game. smh

Pitt shot their free throws right around their average against the Hoosiers, but let's take a look at IU's defense to get an idea of how they do what they do.

free throw lineup

Indiana is in a pretty typical free throw defensive alignment right here. They have two guys up front on each side of the basket, and because they are classy and understand sportsmanship they also let two Pittsburgh guys stand next to them. But, being classy doesn't win all the games (but it will win most of them and is easily the most important statistic to measure a team's success) they put two more guys to make a sort of Panther sandwich. Some people will try to tell you that Indiana lets opponents stand next to them because the rules require it but those people don't understand TRADITION and BANNERS.

Most free throw shooting teams take advantage of this alignment on free throws unless you are John Beilein desperately trying to avoid getting the offensive rebound that would deliver you a B1G Championship. (lmao)

Anyway, as you can see in the screencap, the coaching staff has made a point of making sure the Hoosiers look the free throw shooter dead in the eyes as he's attempting his shot. James Blackmon isn't showing very good technique here but he may see a quarter or silver dollar on the floor that he wants to make sure to pick up later. That would normally be O.K. but he needs to remember that, as a STUDENT ATHALETE, if anyone who gave money to the university dropped that coin and he picks it up then it is an improper benefit and could be subject to the NCAA's death panels.

In the future, James should alert the back guard (quietly) that there is loose change on the floor and then get back to staring daggers at the free throw shooter. He can worry about the coins later. These kind of growing pains are very common with freshman and he'll be better for it. Look at Troy Williams! He is completely locked in with the shooter's eyes when just last year he got so distracted during a free throw that he wandered into the stands and shared a soft pretzel with an attendee.

When you stare the shooter in the eyes you start to unnerve them. Get out of your chair and go stare at someone right now, look how upset they get after awhile! Imagine trying to do anything while that is happening! It's a very good and proven technique that Tom Crean has instilled. Free throw defense is a culture and it's safe to say we can always count on it and it's totally sustainable.

dFT% Rank by Year
2008-09 115th
2009-10 190th
2010-11 239th
2011-12 227th
2012-13 249th
2013-14 268th
2014-15 14th