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Wake Forest: Is Late-Game Free Throw Shooting a Problem for the Deacs?

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Is Wake Forest a clutch free throw shooting team this year or has nothing changed from the past?

Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

Wake Forest free throw shooting has been a common discussion topic over the last couple of years for fans. Since 2010 it seemed as though every time the Deacs needed to put away a game on the line they failed to get it done and I’ve heard countless fans voice their anger at our inability to capitalize at the charity stripe. Wake is now off to a strong 2015-16 season and so naturally complaints like this are drowned out by the W’s at the end of the day.

However, after last night’s loss in which the Deacs struggled to take advantage of free throws in their comeback attempt against UL, I got to thinking: Is Wake really a more clutch free throw shooting team than in the past? The numbers might surprise you.

I went through game-film and play-by-play of all 13 games of the Deacs’ season so far and analyzed the final 120 seconds of each game and WF’s free throw shooting. In the 13 games so far Wake Forest has went to the line 64 times in the final 2 minutes of each contest, of which it has hit 38 shots. That rounds out to a percentage of 59%, a full 10% behind its normal FT percentage of 69% throughout the full 40 minutes.

In fact, if you split the first 38 minutes from the last two, Wake moves up to 71% from the line in non-crunch time in comparison to the 59% in the closing seconds. That’s a huge difference in effectiveness and somewhat stunning considering Wake has come out on top in almost every close game it has played apart from Xavier and UL.

You might be saying "Well how many of those free throws were meaningless in that they had little to no effect on the rest of the game?" That is a completely valid question, as often times a winning team might go to the line up 15 and their performance has nothing to do "clutchness" because the result is already decided.

To date, there’s only one data point that is an outlier by this logic and that was John Collins going 1-1 on an And-1 against Vanderbilt. The UNCG game, in which the Deacs were up 10+ in the final minutes, Wake didn’t shoot any FT’s and all other games (as you know) were still very much competitive until the end.

So who are the ones usually heading to the line in crunch-time? So far six players have shot a FT for Wake Forest in the final two minutes of a game this year and their statistics are below.

Crawford started out the season 9-10 from the line in the final 120 seconds, but since the Bucknell game has gone 1 for 7 surprisingly. His three misses last night at the 18 second mark were the nail in the coffin when Wake was looking to cut UL’s deficit in half.

Thomas is tied for the most attempts with Crawford, but this is often due to the fact that he grabs rebounds and is immediately fouled and sent to the line. His 53% is only a few percentage points down from his usual average of 58% and he’s almost always 1 for 2 whenever it’s a 1&1 or double-bonus opportunity. He has gone 0/2 or 2/2 just twice so far this year in the final two minutes.

Dinos is by far the most consistent free throw shooter down the stretch and this coincides with his #1 spot on the team at 84%. However, his initial 1&1 miss last night with 1:21 left is undoubtedly the most damaging of the season so far as UL promptly went down and hit a bucket to extend the lead to 4. Dinos never fears the spotlight, but his free throw shooting as of late has been questionable in clutch spots (2 for 5 against LSU and UL). He’s 92% in minutes 1-38, and 75% in the closing stages.

When you have a team that has multiple players that struggle at the charity stripe late in games, as a staff you need to assess who is the go-to-guy that you want to have the ball in his hands. From watching game film I assessed how many times Wake got the ball to somebody it wanted to for the foul.

For example, if Devin gets a rebound and immediately is fouled that probably is a situation Wake would have wanted to avoid. However, if on an in-bounds the main target is for Hudson to get the ball, that is a situation Wake wants. When Wake has a choice of who to get the ball to, this is how the breakdown comes out.

Hudson has more than twice the amount of "Go-To" passes than any one else on the team, which can lend itself to a couple things. Either Hudson, who shoots 50% in crunch time but 70% on the season, is the guy the staff wants to have the ball, or Hudson is simply the best at getting open on in-bounds/outlet plays and thus he heads to the line the most. The UCLA game he was undoubtedly the #1 target as it seemed like every dead-ball play was made for him to receive the pass, but he has only shot four clutch free throws since then.

Despite the recent struggles, I still want Dinos at the line when the game is in the closing stages. He has a short memory, is the best FT shooter on the team, and is the sophomore with the most experience making big shots. The problem is that his defensive shortcomings often lead to him not being on the floor during an opponent’s miss, which limits the amount of times he can get the ball.

When there is an in-bound play to be made Mitoglou is almost always on the floor, but if the game is free flowing he’s more of a liability and you almost have to trust one of the other guys to come up big at the line.

Finally, let’s look at how FT percentage changes throughout the final two minutes. Does the pressure get to Wake as the clock winds down?

As you can see, Wake tends to unravel at the line as games come to an end shooting a flat 50% in the closing 30 seconds of contests. Wake shoots relatively close to its overall percentage in the 39th minute, but way below its average in the 40th. It’s a wonder that this statistic hasn’t cost Wake in many games considering almost every single one has come down to the wire.

However, having re-watched the endings of a number of the games for this article it’s incredible just how poor WF’s opponents have been shooting from the field in their comeback attempts. For example, LSU closed the game going 1 for 5, Indiana was 1 for its last 6, and UCLA was 2 for its last 7 with one of those FG’s happening as time expired with no defense. Wake Forest might not be hitting its crunch-time free throws, but its opponents aren’t hitting their ensuing FG’s either, allowing the Deacs to hang on to close wins.

Having seen all this, it’s a lot easier to understand how the Deacs rank #1 in "Luck" on Kenpom. The simple truth is this: Wake must improve its crunch-time FT shooting, because at some point opponents’ late game FG% is going to revert back to the mean, and none of us are going to like the end result.

For more daily Wake Forest stats info, follow me on Twitter @DeacFan3.