BYU men’s basketball coach Mark Pope has a little bit of a dilemma.
On one hand, the Cougar offense is humming along in the Top 25 in efficiency in the country.
On the other hand, BYU is averaging just 12.6 free throw attempts a game, the lowest number for the program since averaging 17.6 per game in 2004-05.
“It’s really, really concerning,” Pope said. “We’ve talked about it a lot and it’s something we have to address. I think we’re the 21st most efficient offense in America so it (the offense) is working. But I don’t know if you win a WCC championship — and I don’t know if you can go deep in the NCAA tournament — if you don’t get to the free throw line.”
The numbers are curious, considering the Cougars are 9-4 and averaging a healthy 76.8 points per game.
BYU is 339th (out of 350 teams) in average free throw attempts per game. By comparison, Indiana is the No.1 team in the country in free throw attempts per game with nearly twice as many (29.3 per game). The Cougars have shot more than 20 free throws in a game only once (21 vs. Montana Tech) this season. In overtime losses to Boise State and Utah, BYU was outshot at the free throw line a whopping 58 to 18.
The impact of free throws is obvious, but not always the biggest factor in winning or losing. Last year’s national champion, Virginia, was 214th in free throws shot per game with its plodding, no-frills offensive style. In the WCC, Gonzaga was 24th in total free throws taken last year (791) but WCC tournament champion Saint Mary’s was just 268th (555).
Pope said BYU can do a better job in drawing fouls away from the ball, which brings into play college basketball rule 10-4.1: “A player shall not hold, displace, push, charge, trip or impede the progress of an opponent by extending arm(s), shoulder(s), hip(s) or knee(s) or by bending his own body into other than a normal position or by using any unreasonably rough tactics.”
Another key factor in BYU’s free throw numbers is that the Cougars are always willing to make the extra pass to get a better, wide-open shot.
“One of the reasons we’re so efficient is because our guys decision making has really improved at the rim,” Pope said. “We’re working so hard to earn ourselves shots with high IQ plays. When you do that what you don’t get is scrums at the rim where there is contact, where a ref is going to have to decide to make a call or not to make a call. The unintended consequence is we’re not getting to the free throw line as often.”
Senior guard TJ Haws has shot more than 400 free throws in his career, making 84 percent of those shots. Last year Haws averaged nearly six free throws attempts per game. This season, he’s averaging 1.6 and for the first time as a Cougar has gone four consecutive games without an attempt.
“I feel like I need to get to the line more,” Haws said. “That is a huge part of my game, honestly, and it has been. I’ll find ways to get to the line, wherever it is on the floor. I think we need to be more aware of that during a game and try to get to that seven-foul mark and get in the bonus.”
If the adjustment can be made without affecting how well the team is playing together, that follows along with the level of commitment the Cougars are showing to simply get wins.
“I feel like the agendas that are usually very present on teams, especially at this level, are becoming irrelevant,” Haws said. “Guys really don’t care about how much they are scoring or how much they are averaging. Guys are just trying to find ways to win.”
It’s been a rough start for Randy Rahe and Weber State, which is 3-6 after last Saturday’s 60-49 loss to Utah at the Beehive Classic. But Rahe is optimistic his team can turn things around after injuries and illness has run its course with the Wildcats. The team’s top three scorers — Jerrick Harding (19.8 points per game), Cody John (11.3) and Pitt transfer Khameron Davis (8.7) — are all quick, athletic guards who will present a matchup problem for BYU.
“I always get a little nervous playing a team we haven’t played before,” Pope said. “And I don’t mean a name, I mean a style. Weber State right now, 22 percent of their possessions are in transition and they’re at 1.3 points per possession in transition. The heart of that is they are really small and they are really fast, really aggressive downhill players that have traditionally been an issue for us.”
Haws was a part of the Cougars’ nightmare meeting with Weber State last year in Ogden. The Wildcats pounded BYU 113-103, ending a 15-game losing streak against the Cougars.
“I still remember that feeling, so that’s in the forefront of my mind, for sure,” Haws said.