Playing small helps Hilltoppers get free throw advantage

WKU forward Dwight Coleby (22) reaches for a rebound during WKU’s game vs. Florida Atlantic in E.A. Diddle Arena on Feb. 8. Coleby scored 15 points and had 8 rebounds.

Jeremy Chisenhall

The WKU basketball team has shown marked improvement in many aspects as they’ve put together one of the team’s best seasons in recent years. One of the more under-the-radar aspects of success this season has been the Hilltoppers’ ability to get to the free-throw line.

Through 25 games this season, WKU has shot more free throws than its opponent 19 times. They are 16-3 in those 19 games. But it’s not just that WKU is getting to the line more than its opponent, it’s that the Hilltoppers’ advantage in free throws attempted has been eye-popping several times this year.

WKU has had 13 games this season in which it made more free throws than its opponent even attempted. The Hilltoppers are 11-2 in those games. Only once this season has another team done that to the Hilltoppers, as Ohio University went 31-of-35 from the foul line in an 89-84 win over the Hilltoppers, who went 15-of-24 from the line.

“Huge stat as always, make more free throws than the opponent shoots,” head coach Rick Stansbury said after WKU’s win over Marshall Jan. 27. “We had 20, I think they attempted … 14. Huge stat.”

The sheer number of free throws attempted by WKU has helped make up for the fact that the Hilltoppers are in the bottom third of the nation in free throw percentage. They rank 45th in the nation in free throw attempts, but 244th in percentage.

And even in losses, WKU’s ability to get to the free-throw line has helped them compete. In WKU’s loss to Middle Tennessee State University Jan. 20, WKU got outshot from the field and lost the turnover battle, but kept the losing margin to just four points thanks to going 25-of-31 from the foul line, while MTSU went 14-of-16.

WKU’s last outing against Florida International University was the team’s best of the season in terms of its ability to get to the line. The Hilltoppers went 28-of-39 from the foul line, while FIU went 8-of-10. That game was the second in a row in which Stansbury went to a smaller lineup, playing most of the game with four guards. The guards spaced the floor and created more driving lanes, which Stansbury said led to more fouls.

“With our ability to spread the floor, we’re able to attack that rim off the dribble and not the pass,” Stansbury said after the game. “We got into that double-bonus early, and we shoot 31 free throws the second half, 39 for the game. That’s a huge stat.”

Junior guard Lamonte Bearden said the speed advantage WKU has when it plays small helps to get that free throw advantage.

“We’re playing faster, so, I mean their four guy is not going to be able to guard Darius [Thompson] usually, so yeah we just try to attack,” Bearden said. “That’s our goal, get to the free-throw line, shoot more free throws than the other team.”

That speed advantage that the guards have has helped Bearden attempt a team-high 109 free throws and shoot a team-best 82.6 percent from the foul line.

Part of the reason why WKU ran a four guard lineup so heavily was because graduate transfer forward Dwight Coleby left the FIU game with a knee injury. Stansbury said afterward that the team thinks Coleby is OK. Whether the Hilltoppers will play a four guard lineup more often may depend on Coleby’s status going forward, but playing small certainly gets WKU to the line more often.

Sports editor Jeremy Chisenhall can be reached at 859-760-0198 and [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @JSChisenhall.