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Behind Melo Trimble, Maryland basketball's foul shooting has turned from liability to major asset

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One of Maryland's biggest turnarounds from last season to this one has come at the foul line. A freshman point guard has keyed the transformation with historic numbers.

Maryland guard Melo Trimble is making nine of every 10 free throws he shoots.
Maryland guard Melo Trimble is making nine of every 10 free throws he shoots.
Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Maryland basketball's offensive turnaround in the season's opening weeks has been stark. The Terps were, according to Ken Pomeroy, the 114th-most efficient team in college hoops last season. That isn't at all impressive for a power conference school. But this year, the Terps rate a terrific 20th through nine games. They've played weaker teams in nonconference play than they did in the ACC last year, certainly, but so has every other power conference team. There's a lot more to the turnaround, but the easiest uptick to spot has come on the foul line.

Last year's Terps were not a good basketball team. One of many things they were bad at was drawing fouls. The 2013-14 Maryland team averaged 21.2 free throw attempts per game, ranking it 241st in the nation. Then the Terps made only 67.9 percent of them, meaning the Terps earned an average of 14.4 points per game on the line. They were bad at getting free throws, and they were bad at making the ones they got.

This year, though, everything's changed. And the Terps are already starting to see massive benefits.

Where last year's Terps were 241st nationally in foul shots per game, this year's are 37th (and 16th among power conference schools). The Terps are making 74 percent out of 26 free throws per game – up from 68 percent out of 21. That means Mark Turgeon's Terps are adding a shade over 19 points per game at the charity stripe, up from the 14 of a year ago. That's five points per game, which is simply an enormous difference when taken at the margins. For perspective, Maryland lost seven games a year ago by less than that amount.

"We continue to get to the foul line. We're becoming very good at that," Turgeon said after the Terps took 35 free throws and made 29 of them in a Saturday win over Winthrop.

A few days earlier, the Terps took 36 foul shots against Virginia's all-world defense. Turgeon wondered aloud after the game when the last time was a team had gotten to the line so frequently against Tony Bennett's Cavaliers. I looked through the last four seasons of Pomeroy's records and eventually decided to give up the search.

The Terps' free throw rate relative to field goal attempts is 16th nationally this year, according to Pomeroy. Last year, it was 270th. As a percentage of those attempts made, they've gone from 252nd to 53rd. It's been a transformation.

So, Maryland's been really good on free throws. What changed?

For one thing, the personnel is different. Perennial brick-shooter Charles Mitchell is gone, as is his 33 percent foul shooting. Roddy Peters and his 64 percent shooting? In South Florida. Shaquille Cleare's 58.6 percent mark? Gone, too.

And the players who have replaced the departed Terps haven't generally been better shooters. Some of them have been downright superlative at creating foul shots and then knocking them down. One player, in particular.

Melo Trimble is combining drawing and making foul shots at somewhat mind-bending rate. Trimble has drawn fouls 7.2 times per 40 minutes over nine games, placing him 41st in the country. The last time a freshman point guard drew fouls at such a rate? I searched Pomeroy's database and couldn't find a single one (though anyone is welcome to try). While Trimble gets to the line after drawing fouls more than just about anyone else, he also makes his free throws more than, well, anybody else. The last time a Maryland player shot better from the line over a full season than Trimble's current 88.6 percent? That was 2007, when role player Eric Hayes shot 91.2 percent. Even against Virginia, Trimble drew two shooting fouls on excellent defender Malcolm Brogdon in a matter of seconds. But his line gets even better with more context:

To date, Trimble is making 6.9 free throws per game, on average. That's the most of any player in college basketball, bar none. And Trimble is a freshman. And Trimble is a point guard. He is a freshman point guard getting to the line and making free throws more than any of the other several thousand players in major college basketball. That's simply remarkable. The most valuable foul shooter in college basketball, right now, is starting at point guard for Maryland.

(The last NCAA player to average as many made foul shots in a full year as Trimble has through the start of his career? That'd be Weber State's Damian Lillard, who averaged an even seven made attempts in 2011-12.)

The most valuable foul shooter in college basketball is starting at point guard for Maryland.

Trimble has had some help in Maryland's free throw renaissance, though. Forward Jake Layman is shooting about 74 percent (2 percent better than he did last year), but he's drawing 6.9 fouls per 40 minutes now compared to 3.2 then. His free throw rate, per Pomeroy, has nearly tripled. While Trimble is 41st in the country in fouls drawn rate, Layman is right behind him at 57th. He hasn't been Trimble-level good at drawing free throws or making them, but he's been creating fouls at an elite level.

"Just having that more aggressive mentality and being more comfortable handling the ball and going to the basket," Layman said after he made a career-high 11 foul shots against Winthrop.

Damonte Dodd was an excruciating 2-of-16 from the stripe as a freshman, but he's made 15 of 24 tries to start this year. He's also getting fouled five times per 40, up from three last year.

Dez Wells, in a small sample before his injury, had regressed slightly in fouls drawn and free throw percentage. So has Richaud Pack, whose 68 percent this year is out of line with his career averages (he was at 80 percent with North Carolina A&T a year ago). Dion Wiley has struggled (62 percent), but his skill set suggests he'll be a good foul shooter fairly soon. When Evan Smotrycz returns to the lineup regularly, he'll bring along a 75 percent rate. If any of the team's current hot foul shooters go cold, there are positive regressions in line to offset it.

The season is still young, and the statistical picture is very much subject to change in time. But at this point, Maryland has gone from a team that can't draw fouls or make free throws to a team that's quite good at doing both. The result is a drastically more efficient offense, catalyzed by a freshman who's helped them at an extraordinary rate.