On the scale of chic topics in basketball in general, free throws is near the bottom. Unlike “length”, “skill set” or “dribble drive,” it’s not a term that pundits love seemingly just because of how the words sound coming out of their mouths. Much like special teams in football, they are often underrated or even ignored, despite their ability to absolutely play a role in a game’s outcome.
Also like special teams in the NFL playoffs, though (anyone who saw the Seattle-Green Bay NFC playoff game can vouch for it), you better believe free throws will be important this month. We got another taste of that Tuesday night, as poor free throw shooting doomed a couple teams chasing what would’ve been massive wins.
Georgia was on track to be the first this year to defeat Kentucky, but the Bulldogs shot just 9 of 18 at the line in an eventual 72-64 loss. Meanwhile, West Virginia played down two starters and delivered a spirited performance at Kansas, leading for almost all of regulation. WVU hit just 16 of 28 from the stripe, though, and the Jayhawks pulled through in overtime for a 76-69 win.
Georgia led the Wildcats 56-47 with nine minutes to play, but UK turned it on, pounded it inside offensively and UGA wilted. It was another impressive performance by the Wildcats, and their track record since last year’s NCAA Tournament indicates the Bulldogs’ free throw shooting may not have mattered in the end, but it certainly did not help.
West Virginia played again without Juwan Staten and Gary Browne, but the Mountaineers built a 40-22 lead at one point and dominated the glass at Allen Fieldhouse. WVU out-boarded the Jayhawks 46-34, ripped down 21 offensive rebounds and held KU to 0 of 15 shooting from three-point range. Kansas also lost Perry Ellis to a knee injury in the first half, yet there’s a reason why it has now won 11 straight Big 12 titles. That West Virginia shot 4 of 8 from the line in the second half-including missing the front end of two one-and-ones-certainly did not help in keeping the Jayhawks at bay.
Connecticut won the NCAA title last year in good part because of how well it shot free throws-an incredible 87.8% over six games. Its opponents shot 66.1%. The Huskies won four of those games by six points or less or in overtime. Games against Iowa State and Kentucky were directly decided by UConn’s ability to drain foul shots.
As the competition gets tighter, how teams shoot free throws matters even more. The guess here is you will see at least a half-dozen NCAA Tournament games decided by free throws this year, and maybe a lot more.
- The first conference tournament games were played Tuesday night. The semifinals are set in the Atlantic Sun after seeds 1, 2, 3 and 5 won in the quarterfinals. The best game was the 4/5 matchup, where Lipscomb defeated Northern Kentucky 76-73 in overtime, knocking the Norse out of their first-ever Division I conference tourney game. Elsewhere, top-seeded North Florida cruised past Stetson 81-67, No. 2 Florida Gulf Coast pulled away from Jacksonville 81-63 and No. 3 South Carolina Upstate routed Kennesaw State 90-54. North Florida will now host Lipscomb, while FGCU faces USC Upstate in what should be one of the better semifinal matchups of any tournament this week.
- Other conference tourney first round games were played in the Horizon and Patriot leagues. In the Horizon, No. 5 Detroit topped Youngstown State’s Penguins 77-67 and No. 6 Illinois-Chicago moved on with a 60-57 win over Wright State. Detroit now faces No. 4 Cleveland State, while UIC is at 3 seed Oakland.
- In the Patriot, No. 8 Holy Cross handled No. 9 Loyola (Md.) 62-43 to advance to a quarterfinal with top seed Bucknell. The other first round game saw No. 7 Navy upend rival Army 56-52. Army was once a Patriot League favorite, going 9-2 outside the league, but the Cadets lost 9 of 10 to close the season, slipped to the basement in the league, and now their season is likely done. Navy next has No. 2 Colgate.
- Iowa delivered a very impressive performance, going to Indiana and handling the Hoosiers 77-63. The Hawkeyes used their size inside, beat IU down the floor repeatedly for easy baskets, and played excellent defense, and now should be set for the NCAA tourney.
- Georgetown earned a 60-54 win at Butler to move into a tie with the Bulldogs for second in the Big East. Don’t be misled by their records; a number of Big East teams are primed to win multiple games in the NCAA Tournament. Also, Villanova held off determined Creighton 76-72.
- Bubble winners: Mississippi should be just about locked in after an 82-74 win at Alabama. Dayton should be a lock as well, and a 75-59 win over Rhode Island only solidified that. North Carolina State used a big second half run to get ahead and then held off Clemson 66-61.
- Bubble loser: Texas A&M lost at Florida 66-62. Not a crushing loss for the Aggies so long as they don’t finish the season on a three-game losing streak. The Gators played without Michael Frazier, still out with an ankle injury.
- Central Michigan wrapped up at least a tie for the MAC West title by sweeping the season series against Toledo with an 85-77 win. John Simons scored 28 and had eight three-pointers, and he, Chris Fowler (24 points) and Braylon Rayson (21) combined for 73 points. The MAC East is now a drag race to the finish after Kent State won at Bowling Green 81-80 (isn’t college basketball supposedly “unwatchable”?). Those two and Buffalo are now tied for the top spot after the Bulls hammered Ohio 93-66.
- More conference postseason honors were released on Tuesday. Seth Tuttle of Northern Iowa was named the MVC Larry Bird Player of the Year, an accomplishment that is not surprising but also should not be underestimated. Tuttle won the award over last year’s winner Fred VanVleet as well as Ron Baker, both of Wichita State. All three will receive heavy All-America consideration this year.
- Another future All-American, Kyle Wiltjer of Gonzaga, was named the WCC’s best player. The Bulldogs dominated the league’s honors, winning all four major individual awards and placing three on the all-conference first team plus three more on the five-player second team.
- Also releasing honors were the Northeast Conference, where Jalen Cannon of St. Francis (N.Y.) is player of the year, and the Ohio Valley, where Murray State’s Cameron Payne received the top award. The Southern Conference also released its awards, and Wofford’s dynamic Karl Cochran was named the league’s top player.
- More conference tournament play is on tap in the America East, Big South, NEC and OVC. Highlighting the schedule are quarterfinals in the America East and NEC. Top seed Albany hosts Maine in the A-East, and a good 4/5 matchup has New Hampshire taking on Hartford. The NEC quarters start with No. 1 St. Francis (N.Y.) hosting Brooklyn neighbor LIU, No. 2 Robert Morris hosting Wagner, No. 3 Bryant at home against Sacred Heart and No. 4 Mount St. Mary’s taking on No. 5 St. Francis (Pa.). The Big South first round includes Gardner-Webb taking on Campbell, while the OVC opening round has No. 5 Morehead State against a decent 8 seed in SE Missouri State and No. 6 Eastern Illinois taking on No. 7 Southern Illinois-Edwardsville.
- Notre Dame goes to Louisville (7 p.m. EST, ESPN2) for a heavyweight clash. Also in the ACC, Miami (Fla.) and Pittsburgh meet in what should be a loser-out game for at-large consideration.
- Purdue is probably a lock for the NCAA tourney, but can throw away the key if it wins at Michigan State (8 p.m. EST, BTN). Also, Illinois can’t afford a loss at home to Nebraska (10 p.m. EST, BTN).
- St. John’s is closing in on an NCAA bid, but would be advised not to slip on a banana peel thrown by Marquette (9 p.m. EST, FS1).
- TCU is playing with renewed confidence like it did in December, so Oklahoma State (9 p.m. EST, ESPNU) has no walkover despite being at home.
- Utah State is still in the running for the Mountain West regular season title. The Aggies can clinch at least a top-four seed in the MWC tourney if they can win at Wyoming. The three other top teams in the league are also on the road, with Boise State at lowly San Jose State, San Diego State taking on UNLV (11 p.m. EST, CBSSN) and Colorado State at Nevada.
- Pair of rivalry games in the Pac-12, with USC at UCLA (9 p.m. EST, ESPN2) and Oregon at Oregon State (11 p.m. EST, ESPNU).
- Independent New Jersey Tech closes its regular season at Howard, a team that has quietly had a solid year in the MEAC. A win would get the Highlanders to 18-11, and hopefully that is enough for a postseason berth.
Have a wonderful Wednesday.