Don’t expect a free-throw shooting clinic Saturday at Williams Arena when the Gophers and Rutgers square off.
The Scarlet Knights rank last in Big Ten men’s basketball in free-throw percentage at 63.7. The Gophers aren’t much better, at 65.9 percent, and they missed 14 free throws in a 82-67 home loss to Maryland on Tuesday.
“Obviously, shooting 39 percent from the foul line, it’s hard to win,” Gophers coach Richard Pitino said. “You try not to make it a bigger deal than it needs to be.”
Surprisingly, that wasn’t the most missed free throws for the Gophers in six seasons under Pitino. An even worse performance came earlier this season, with 15 missed free throws in a victory over Santa Clara.
To brick as many foul shots as the Gophers do — with 10 or more missed free throws in five games this season — you have to get fouled a lot. So the team’s big weakness comes right after one of its biggest strengths.
The Gophers (12-3, 2-2 Big Ten) rank fifth in the nation with 27.4 free throws attempted per game. Only Iowa, the No. 1 team in college hoops in made foul shots, is better at that in the Big Ten. And the Hawkeyes cash in more, shooting 76 percent.
“We’re one of the best teams in the country at getting to the foul line, so we just can’t leave points in the free-throw line,” Pitino said. “We just have to work on it. We shoot them every day.”
On Tuesday, Maryland hit 24-for-27 from the stripe, while the Gophers went 9-for-23, including 4-for-14 in the second half. While the entire team has struggled, the misses Tuesday came from Jordan Murphy (3-for-9), Daniel Oturu (1-for-4) and Amir Coffey (3-for-8).
“The problem with the missed free throws is I thought it zapped our energy,” Pitino said. “I hated the fact that we didn’t fight through that. We’ve got to be tougher than that.”
Coffey, who leads the team with 15.5 points per game, missed two in a row at the line with 1:16 left in the second half. He called Tuesday just an “off game” for himself as someone who shoots over 70 percent.
“We’re still going to get to the line,” Coffey said. “My routine is just I wipe my left hand, one dribble, take a deep breath and shoot it. I’ve been doing that for awhile now. I’m not going to change anything.”
Murphy, who has seen his free-throw percentage drop from 70 as a junior to 66.4 this year, leads all high-major players and ranks fifth in Division I in free-throw attempts per game with 8.13.
“As veterans who have been here for four years, we’ve got to do a better job,” Murphy said. “Free throws are mainly a mentality thing. … Obviously, we work on it every day in practice. [Tuesday] we just didn’t have it, anyone, including myself.”
The Gophers won the Vancouver Showcase shooting 63-for-103 (61.2 percent) at the line in three victories over Texas A&M, Santa Clara and Washington. So imagine how much tougher Minnesota would be if it not only could draw fouls by being aggressive, but also turn those attempts into points.
“If Minnesota wants to take that next step,” Big Ten Network analyst Robbie Hummel said. “They are so good at getting to the line, but you have to convert.”