Living at the Line: Hilltoppers find salvation at the free-throw line

Junior guard Josh Anderson (4) readies for a free throw attempt during the WKU Hilltoppers’ 91-84 win over the Marshall Thundering Herd on Saturday, Jan. 25 in Diddle Arena.

Elliott Wells

Across his 18-year head coaching career, Rick Stansbury has developed a reputation for fielding teams that shoot the ball well from the free-throw line, and that tendency has proved to be critical to the success of the WKU men’s basketball team (14-6, 7-1 C-USA) this season.

Coming into the year, Stansbury said the 2019-20 roster would comprise his “deepest and most experienced team” at WKU, with four returning starters and three upperclassmen transfers.

Stansbury said in October he had “about eight guys” he felt comfortable inserting into the starting lineup on any given night, but the same can’t be said for WKU in late January.

The Hilltoppers’ roster was thinned considerably after sophomore center Charles Bassey suffered a season-ending injury against Arkansas on Dec. 7 and senior guard Kenny Cooper had his request for immediate eligibility denied on Dec. 10.

Availability has continued to be an issue, as graduate guard Camron Justice has been limited since injuring his back lifting weights prior to a Jan. 9 game against Alabama-Birmingham.

Just months after thinking he wouldn’t have to “play guys out of necessity” this season, Stansbury has roughly nine players he feels comfortable giving minutes to, and that number essentially dwindles to include only his top six players in tight, late-game situations.

Injuries and eligibility issues have forced Stansbury to play a smaller four-guard lineup with the 6-foot-5-inch Carson Williams at the center position, causing the Hilltoppers’ margin for error to become razor thin, especially during times when WKU struggles to score consistently.

WKU has attempted to close the gap and minimize the impact of its size deficiency by driving the ball inside the paint, drawing fouls and getting to the charity stripe at a very high clip.

Over 14 seasons at Mississippi State and three full years on the Hill, Stansbury has never had a season where his team was outshot on free throws. As of Jan. 20, Stansbury’s teams had shot 2,679 more total free throws than their opponents during his 18 seasons as a head coach.

He’s employed a similar strategy this season, and it’s worked so far — WKU made 72 more free throws (321) than its opponents attempted (249) through the first 19 games, and the Hilltoppers also moved to eighth nationally in fouls per game with a solid 13.6 mark.

“My wife says don’t say anything or talk about it, but we’re a really good free-throw shooting team,” Stansbury said. “I don’t believe in those jinxes. When you can shoot it, you can shoot. But more importantly, we’re getting there. That’s the most important thing. Getting there is one thing and making them is another thing. But I feel good about everybody going to that foul line.”

During the 2018-19 season, the Hilltoppers posted the highest free-throw percentage by a Stansbury-led team, finishing with a 72.4% mark from the stripe.

If the season ended last week, the Hilltoppers would’ve easily topped that mark. WKU was shooting an eye-popping 78.5% from the line as of Jan. 23, ranking Stansbury’s squad first among Conference USA teams and sixth nationally in free-throw percentage.

WKU has made a living from the free-throw line since the beginning of conference play, making 143 of their 179 foul shots for a stellar 79.9% mark against league foes.

“He puts it on the board before every game — ‘Win the free throw war,’” Justice said about his head coach. “We try to make more free throws than the other team attempts every single game. So far, we’ve been successful with that.”

The Hilltoppers have attempted 15 or more free throws in seven of their first eight games in C-USA play. WKU’s only league game shooting less than 15 free throws resulted in a 72-62 road loss at UAB on Jan. 9. In that game, WKU shot 7 for 8 from the free-throw line.

Additionally, WKU has been limited to 15 or less attempts from the free-throw line in four of their six losses this season. The Hilltoppers’ free throw percentage in those losses also dips several percentage points from their season average at the line.

The Hilltoppers currently rank first among C-USA schools in free throw percentage with an impressive 78.4% mark and first in attempted free throws with 431 tries in 20 games.

“Everybody stays after practice to get free throws in individually,” freshman guard Jordan Rawls said.

Justice interrupted Rawls and added, “You have to make 10 in a row before you can leave.” After cracking a smile and patting his teammate on the back in a comical manner, Justice held back laughter as he said, “So, this guy makes 100 a day.”

WKU has made getting to the foul line a priority, and junior Taveion Hollingsworth has led the charge for Stansbury in that area — and most others — since returning to his natural position at shooting guard in early January after Rawls took over at point guard.

The Lexington native has finished each of his last six outings as the leading scorer for WKU, and he’s done so by not only getting to the free-throw line, but converting when he’s there.

Last season, Hollingsworth only attempted 118 total foul shots and tallied 91 points from the free throw during WKU’s 34-game season.

Through 20 games played in the 2019-20 campaign, the 6-foot-2-inch guard has already converted 86 points from the line, including 47-of-52 free throws overall in league play.

Hollingsworth is ranked No. 4 among all qualified C-USA players in free throw percentage at 85.1%, and he’s joined in the top nine of that category by two WKU teammates — eighth-ranked Williams (78.6%) and ninth-ranked junior guard Josh Anderson (75.6%).

The Hilltoppers completed a 19-point comeback at Marshall on Jan. 22, which was the second-largest deficit overcome by the Hilltoppers since 2002.

While stringing together miraculous comebacks likely isn’t a sustainable strategy, more solid outings from the foul line could carry this scrappy Hilltopper squad to the postseason.

WKU will be back in action at Florida Atlantic (12-9, 4-4 C-USA) on Thursday and at Florida International on Saturday (14-7, 5-3 C-USA).

Reporter Elliott Wells can be reached at [email protected] Follow Elliott on Twitter at @ewells5.