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Maryland basketball's foul line productivity has changed everything in resurgent season

The Terps have become dominant foul shooters. It's been crucial.

Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

A few weeks ago, just as the college basketball season's statistical picture was coming into focus, I wrote about Maryland's startling early improvement at the free throw line. The Terrapins are now more than halfway to what could be their best season in a generation, and foul shooting looks as pivotal as ever.

The Terps spent last season rarely getting to the free throw line and even less rarely making the shots they took from there. But this season, they've drawn tons of fouls and made their ensuing shots from the line.

Maryland and Free Throws, 2014-15 Season
Free Throws Made/Game Free Throw Attempts/Game FT Attempts/FG Attempts Free Throw Percentage
19.3 25.5 49.1 percent 75.5 percent
4th nationally 16th nationally 9th nationally 15th nationally

Last year's team got to the line at the 270th-best rate in college basketball, relative to field goal attempts taken. This year's team ranks ninth. Last year's team knocked down a mere 67.9 percent of what foul shots it did earn, ranking 252nd nationally. This year's team is connecting at a sublime 75.5 percent, ranking 15th nationally. To put it most simply, Maryland was awful at everything about free throws. Now, Maryland is elite at everything about free throws.

Consider just how good Maryland's been from the line - and just how much it's meant:

  • In games through last weekend, Maryland has made 366 foul shots. That's 44 more made attempts than the next-best power conference school, Arizona. (Maryland is second overall behind Brigham Young in raw makes and fourth per game.)
  • Maryland has made more foul shots than the opposition in 17 of 19 games, with the exceptions coming in a win over Iowa State and a loss to Illinois. That's not just because the Terps make their shots, but because they've let opponents attempt them at the 11th-least frequent rate on defense. They've been just as good at preventing foul shots on defense as they've been at getting them on offense.
  • The Terrapins are scoring an average of 19.3 points per game from the foul line. Last year's Terps scored 14.4 points per game from the same spot.
  • In total, the Terps are averaging 73 points per contest this season. Last season, they averaged 71 points. Without the five-point increase in free throws made per game, Maryland's offensive output would be three points lower than it was last year, when it ranked 114th nationally in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted offensive efficiency. This year, the Terps rank 37th.

Holding free throws constant, Maryland's offense has actually stepped backward in raw scoring from last season to this season. Disclaimers apply: Maryland has led almost all of its games in the closing minutes, leading to obvious fouling situations in the bonus or double bonus. And Maryland's also shooting better from the field, all while playing at a slower offensive pace that holds down scoring. Still, the free throw difference can hardly be overstated.

A full 26.4 percent of Maryland's points have come from the line (the 10th-most in the nation), and the Terps have made at least 20 foul shots in each of their most recent three games - all wins. The Terps have gotten a leg up on the scoreboard from the foul line in nine of every 10 games.

Much is different about this version of Maryland basketball. The team has stars, for one thing. Melo Trimble, Jake Layman and Dez Wells are key on-court drivers in both the team's 17-2 record and foul line success. But Maryland has a deep roster full of rising shooters. To find a microcosm of this team's improvement, look no further than the white line at the top of the paint.