By Chuckie Maggio, @ChuckieMaggio
One of the main gripes from St. Bonaventure Bonnies fans this season has been the free throw shooting numbers.
One of the most basic fundamental aspects of the game of basketball has been missing this year from Mark Schmidt’s team. Many people cite the lack of execution from the stripe as one of the main reasons the Bonnies have lost many nail-biters this season.
The gripes are somewhat valid. St. Bonaventure is 148th in the nation in free throws at 70.8 percent. At points this season, they were in the mid-200s at as low as 67 percent. The lowest point was a back-to-back stretch in December.
The Bonnies shot 43 percent from the line against Wake Forest, a game they let go in the second half after holding a halftime lead, then shot 45 percent from the stripe against Niagara, a game they squeaked out thanks to a Charlon Kloof buzzer-beater. After those two games, they got back over 50 percent but continued to struggle to make their freebies.
Then, at home against Massachusetts on Jan. 29, everything clicked. Everyone started making his free throws, to the tune of a 30-34, 88.2 percent effort. Kloof went 8-9 and Youssou Ndoye went 6-8. Matthew Wright, Marquise Simmons, Andell Cumberbatch, Dion Wright and Jordan Gathers made all their shots from the line, and Denzel Gregg went 4-5. Everyone who had struggled all season was suddenly getting to the stripe, going through their routine and knocking them down.
The result of this foul shot awakening? An upset win over then-No.19 team in the country, the first St. Bona win over a ranked team since 2000.
Since that night, the Bonnies’ free throw shooting numbers have improved tremendously. In the last three games, they have shot 86 percent from the line, winning their first big road game and getting revenge for a loss to Duquesne earlier in the year.
The fact that the team is now at No. 148 in free throw percentage at 70.8 percent may sound unimpressive, but when you consider where they were at the beginning of the season, it’s a major accomplishment. They’ve practiced their free throws more and more, and the results are starting to come.
Schmidt is a smart coach. He knew what had to be corrected, and he went out and corrected it. It all really began in the most important game of the season at the Reilly Center against the UMass Minutemen.
Individually, the Bonnies deserve a pat on the back as well when it comes to free throw shooting. For one, Matthew Wright is the best foul shooter in the Atlantic 10 Conference at 88.3 percent. He has missed one free throw in the last five games. Wright has always excelled at the line, but this year has been an extraordinarily consistent effort, which speaks to his work ethic and leadership role.
“Foul shooting is contagious,” Wright said a week ago. “If someone misses a few, everyone starts missing and vice versa.”
In addition, one player who has greatly improved from the line, perhaps because it has become contagious, is Ndoye. Ndoye is having a career year when it comes to free throw shooting, and he has been fantastic the past few games, going 16-20 the last three games. When a big man can hit those shots from the line, your chances of winning the game significantly increase.
The free throw line, once a house of horrors for this St. Bonaventure Bonnies team, has become a safe haven in the second half of the season. If they are going to go on a run like they did in 2012, the performance from the line will need to continue to improve.