Free throw effectiveness carrying Marquette offense

In an interview last season, Buzz Williams revealed his coaching staff keeps track of nine different unique statistics during a game, with a number in mind for each they attempt to reach that Williams believes leads to victories.

Whether that list has changed or Williams has added or subtracted statistics this season is unsure, but one of those numbers is for Marquette to make more free throws than its opponent attempts each game.

And for an offense that has struggled at times — three different times the Golden Eagles have failed to top 50 points — and has no true go-to scorer (Davante Gardner is close) as they have in seasons’ past, Marquette’s ability to draw fouls and get to the free throw line has carried them to a 4-1 start in Big East play.

Davante Gardner's free throw percentage is incredibly high, and carrying a Marquette offense averaging 69.9 points per game.

Davante Gardner’s free throw percentage is incredibly high, and carrying a Marquette offense averaging 69.9 points per game.

As it relates to Williams’ statistic, Marquette has made more free throws than its opponent has attempted three times in Big East play. The Golden Eagles failed to reach that mark against Pittsburgh (23 free throw makes to Pitt’s 26 attempts) when Junior Cadougan (ankle), Marquette’s fourth most frequent free throw shooter, was limited to just 16 minutes.

They also failed to reach that mark against Cincinnati (21 free throw makes to 29 Cincinnati attempts), when both Titus Rubles and Sean Kilpatrick reached double-digit attempts in Saturday evening’s 71-69 overtime loss.

Those two instances — Marquette wasn’t going to reach the feat in every contest — have been the only times they’ve failed to reach the mark, and in conference play Marquette has made 111 free throws to opponent’s 109 attempts. It’s part of a growing trend that has the Golden Eagles’ offense staying afloat behind impressive defense, and with a slowed pace the free throw makes have been all the more important.

In Big East play, Marquette’s 58.9 free throw attempts-to-field goal attempts rate is the best mark in the conference, led — to no surprise — by Davante Gardner’s 45 free throw attempts to 32 field goal attempts. That 140.6 percentage free throw rate easily leads the Big East, and he’s actually the only player in the conference to attempt more free throws than field goals. Next closest is St. John’s Sir’Dominic Pointer (27-to-31).

It doesn’t hurt that Gardner’s 86.7 percent mark from the charity stripe is also seventh in the Big East. Consider this: Gardner’s 45 free throw attempts in five Big East games are 26 less than South Florida attempted as a team through five games.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Marquette is receiving 32.4 percent of its points from the charity stripe in Big East play, also the highest mark in the conference. Gardner leads the way again, receiving 52 percent of his scoring (39-of-75) from the line, but Todd Mayo’s 40.0 percent rate (16-of-40) and Trent Lockett’s 37 percent rate (10-of-27) also have helped the cause.

Even Vander Blue’s 17-of-19 mark the last three contests are indicative of a team looking to get to the basket, and it’s working.

Vander Blue has attempted 17 free throws the last three games, making 15 of them.

Vander Blue has attempted 17 free throws the last three games, making 15 of them.

Marquette has seen an increase in 3-point attempts, averaging 17.6 per game in Big East play after attempting just 13.0 per game in 12 non-conference games. The Golden Eagles’ average is also down from 32.0 percent in non-conference play to 27.3 percent over the last five Big East contests.

It’s a common trend for teams to have more success the more they get to the free throw line, but the more 2-3 zones Marquette sees the more getting into those zones and finding shots at the basket are important. Outside shots are available for Marquette, but the versatile roster is better served finding the holes in said zones.

The more indicative stat to follow will be inside looks and free throw attempts. Gardner’s impressive numbers and Blue’s upward trend in attempts should help cover Marquette’s weaknesses from outside and lack of scoring from key contributors (Derrick Wilson, Juan Anderson).

Williams and the coaching staff have more than a handful of numbers they look at each game, but Marquette’s tendency to get to the free throw line will keep the offense moving along even if the outside shots aren’t falling.

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