Nittany Lions Free Throw Struggles

Story posted January 16, 2013 in Sports, CommRadio by Eric DeBerardinis

Nothing comes free in the hard-nosed Big Ten, except for foul shots and the occasional promotional giveaway. To begin 2013, Penn State has been extra charitable beyond just Big Macs and snapbacks. Through four conference games the Nittany Lions are awarding opponents with frequent trips to the aptly-named “charity stripe,” while unable to reach it on their own accord.

“We have to get to the line,” emphasized Penn State head coach, Pat Chambers, after a recent loss. “Then we have to make them.”

Interestingly, making free throws hasn’t been the issue, as the team is converting on 76% of opportunities, an above-average mark in college basketball. The opportunities to make them, however, come along about as often as sunny winter days in Happy Valley.

The Nittany Lions are 0-4 in conference play with losses to Wisconsin, Indiana, Northwestern, and Purdue. In those match-ups, their Big Ten brethren have attempted an alarming 65 more foul shots than Penn State, or 16 more attempts per game. For a team that is already weak shooting from the field, the staggering free throw disparity becomes a kiss of death. Coaches and players have taken notice.

“That’s a big concern of mine, trust me,” Chambers assured the media at a recent press conference.

The goal during the Nittany Lions non-conference schedule was to attempt 20 free throws per game. While not quite at the ideal marker, Penn State still managed 16 trips to the line each game. During their four-game losing streak, that number has dipped to barely above 10. Settling for jump shots is one of the reasons the Nittany Lions have regressed.

“We need to get there. Someone needs to go strong to the basket,” pleaded Chambers.

Despite the quality of interior defenders in the Big Ten, Chambers insists that getting the ball into the post is essential for getting to the line and subsequently his team’s success. Feeding the bigs is something the Nittany Lions did with frequency at the end of their non-conference slate, but they have shied away from the trend in the last few outings. The presence of Wisconsin forward/center, Jared Berggen, and Indiana’s All-American candidate Cody Zeller, influenced Penn State’s shot selection.

Chambers has a message for the big bodies on his roster.

“If you get your shot blocked it’s okay,” said the second-year coach. “But you have to be confident and you have to be aggressive.”

Against the Badgers, Penn State had one attempt. That’s not a misprint; one free throw attempt. They missed it too. Versus the Hoosiers, they vacationed 11 times at the foul line. An improvement, but not so much when considering Indiana had 34 attempts.
D.J. Newbill is the Nittany Lions most consistent attacker. Even he has seen his contributions diminish in Big Ten play. In the team’s first 12 games, Newbill averaged seven free throw attempts a game. Since January 3rd, he is averaging just four trips per game.

“We made a point of being aggressive, taking it strong to the hole,” said Newbill last week, concerning one of the focal points in practice.

Slight progress has been made since those comments. Against Northwestern on Thursday, Penn State got to the line 18 times, their Big Ten best so far. On Sunday at Purdue they had 12 attempts, but kept the shot disparity to just single digits.

Poor foul shooting by opponents has prevented bigger blowouts, as teams are shooting just 58% from the line in the Big Ten against Penn State.

The loss of senior guard Tim Frazier has been monumental in almost every facet of the game. A glaring weakness without the preseason All-Big Ten selection has been free throws.

“That’s where we really miss Tim. He got you there 8-10 times a game,” said Chambers. “Now opponents have doubled us in the Big Ten.”

Through three full games, Frazier was averaging 13 free throw attempts per game. But Frazier is not coming back this season, meaning Penn State must continue learning how to adapt without his presence on the floor. 

The road will not get easier with more ranked opponents touting stout defenses in the near future. If the Nittany Lions have any hope for competitiveness they must correct the foul line discrepancies.

Fans will always gladly accept free items handed to them at the Bryce Jordan Center gates. If Penn State somehow finds a way to win or even lessen the free throw disadvantage, spectators might just walk away with the giveaway and a Nittany Lion victory.

Eric DeBerardinis is a junior majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, e-mail ejd5136@psu.edu.