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UCF’s Free Throw Shooting Is Everyone’s Problem, and It’s Not the Only Problem

The Knights are struggling at the line and - surprisingly - on the boards as well.

Derek Warden

There’s a lot of consternation among the UCF Knights’ fan base right now about what’s wrong with the men’s basketball team in the wake of their resounding defeat at Memphis on Sunday. I get it. Ask anyone around here and it’s clear I’m the biggest panic button-masher.

But Sunday reeked of something having been figured out about UCF that they have few, if any, answers to.

Foul shooting is bad, but it’s not the only problem.

The Knights are struggling at the line

Sure, teams hide their weaknesses all the time, and some make great runs while doing so. Memphis themselves came within one Derrick Rose free throw of winning a national title ten years ago (later sanctions notwithstanding), but it was that weak link that cost them immortality. They shot 61.4% from the line (329th in D-I in 2007-2008), and it came back to bite them at the worst possible time:

Much like Memphis a decade ago, foul shooting is one of UCF’s fatal flaws, because it cascades down to reveal a number of other issues.

For the season and at the moment of this post, UCF is shooting 62.6% from the line as a team. That’s 340th out of 353 teams in Division I. In other words, that’s not good.

Of all of UCF’s regular rotation players, Tacko Fall is struggling the most right now. He’s changed his stroke a few times (it’s better now mechanically, if you ask me), but he’s still just 26/94 - 27.7% - at the line. That’s much lower than his previous seasons (56%, 46% and 46% the last three years, respectively).

Teams are realizing that, depending on their style, having him on the floor might yield better results than trying to get him off the floor with foul trouble. He’s on pace for 8.1 free throw attempts per game this season after a previous career high of 5.7 FTA/game last season.

A few friends of mine were engaged in a Twitter argument and we were asked this the other night:

Being a math nerd, I decided to find out.

I took the team free throw percentage numbers for all of Division I and plotted them out into a bell curve to see where UCF falls (Hint: not good), and then I calculated what UCF’s team FT% would be is you just subtracted Tacko from the equation. Here’s what you get, in line with the overall distribution:

Source: Sports Reference (accessed 1/28/18)

But is Tacko Fall really the problem with UCF’s free throw shooting?

Let’s say in an alternate universe, Tacko was exactly 50% - That would be 47/94 with 21 additional makes. That puts UCF here:

Source: Sports Reference (accessed 1/28/18)

Still not all that great.

But while Tacko is obviously struggling, the fact is his shooting at the line not the only reason for the Knights’ issues.

Of the nine players in UCF’s regular rotation, five of them - Terrell Allen (66.7%), Collin Smith (61.3), Dayon Griffin (60%), Chad Brown (57.1%) and Tacko - are shooting below the national average of 70.1%.

UCF is still a much better team with Tacko Fall on the floor than without him. He brings a presence that you just cannot duplicate, especially on defense, and that’s what UCF hangs their hat on. And while his free throw troubles are salient, he’s not the only person who needs to step it up.

The other big problem is rebounding.

I also had my suspicions about a rebounding problem, and digging into the numbers, it turns out there is one.

Two of my favorite advanced stats are offensive and defensive rebounding percentage. Defensive rebounding percentage measures how many of your opponents’ shots you rebound, while offensive rebounding percentage measures how many of your own shots you rebound.

For the season, here are UCF’s ranks in these departments:

  • Offensive Rebounding Percentage: 27.0% (9th in the AAC, 163rd in the nation)
  • Defensive Rebounding Percentage: 73.1% (9th in the AAC, 197th in the nation)

This is not great. Consider two years ago in 2016-17 (Tacko Fall’s last full season):

  • Offensive Rebounding Percentage: 31.7% (3rd in the AAC, 51st in the nation)
  • Defensive Rebounding Percentage: 76.5% (1st in the AAC, 35th in the nation)

We saw this in the Memphis game.

Memphis out-rebounded the Knights 46-28, including 21-12 on the offensive glass. They rebounded 68% of UCF’s shots, and an astounding 57% of their own shots.

Combine that with UCF shooting 7/14 at the line (Both Tacko and Dayon Griffin were each 1/4), and that’s how you lose by 20.

By the way, in UCF’s other conference loss at Wichita State, the Shockers pulled down 33% of their own shots and 82% of UCF’s shots.

You’d be nuts if you didn’t think other teams are going to take the tape of the Memphis game and try to replicate that. Granted, saying these are issues for UCF takes away from the effort of the other teams the Knights are playing in conference. Memphis and Wichita State deserve credit for defending their home floors in conference play.

But we also have to acknowledge some truths here, and if some of these things don’t get corrected soon, the Knights are going to have a very short month of March.