The Loyola men’s basketball team (18-9, 10-4) has rattled off three consecutive wins — including knocking off the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) leading University of Northern Iowa Feb. 15. However, during that stretch, the Ramblers have struggled to convert from the free throw line, shooting just 54.4 percent as a team.
Loyola’s free throw shooting is a “glass half full” versus “glass half empty” kind of debate, based on perspective. The good: the Ramblers are elite at drawing fouls. They have the most free throw attempts of any MVC team this season. The bad: Loyola connects on just 66.4 percent of those free throw attempts — last out of 10 teams in the MVC and 301st out of 353 Division I schools.
The Ramblers are on pace to finish at the bottom of the MVC in free throw percentage for the second straight season after hitting 66.6 percent of their free throws last year. Two seasons ago, Loyola ranked third in the MVC, knocking down 72.5 percent of attempts from the charity stripe en route to an NCAA Tournament Final Four appearance.
In the past 20 seasons, no team ranked last in free throw percentage has won the MVC conference tournament. In fact, only five of those 20 winners were ranked in the bottom half of the league in free throw percentage, and all of them shot better than Loyola’s 66.4 percent this season.
Granted, Loyola has only been in the MVC since the 2013-14 season, but free throw shooting has historically been important in the conference.
Despite Loyola’s struggles at the line, head coach Porter Moser said he’s not worried and has confidence in his players.
“We just gotta keep shooting them,” Moser said following Loyola’s victory against Northern Iowa where the Ramblers went 4-for-8 from the line in the overtime period. “We gotta get to the foul line. Obviously, you want to make those.”
On a per game basis, Loyola ranks second in attempts with 18.6 per contest, closely behind Indiana State University’s league-high 18.7.
There’s a noticeable correlation between Loyola’s free throw attempts and the result of the game. When the Ramblers attempt more free throws than their opponent, they are 15-5. However, when the opposition has more free throw attempts, Loyola’s record is just 3-4.
In addition to shooting a lot of free throws, Loyola is one of the best teams in the country at limiting the opposition’s free throw attempts. Loyola’s opponents have taken a total of 323 free throws this season — the fifth fewest amount in Division I this season.
On average, the Ramblers attempt 6.7 more free throws per game than their opponent, which is considerably better than any other MVC team. Southern Illinois University has the second highest margin at 3.4 per game.
“I think every coach is trying to make more free throws than the other team attempts,” Moser said. “And you do that by trying to be disciplined on defense, not reaching, not swiping down. … I think if you emphasize those things throughout the course [of the season] it just becomes who you are.”
The goal of making more free throws than the other team attempts has brought success. On 14 occasions this season, Loyola made more free throws than the opposition attempted. The Ramblers won 12 of those games.
But Loyola has seen an offensive drop-off in conference play when it comes to free throws. The Ramblers’ attempts per game dropped from 20.3 to 17.1, and they’ve gone from knocking them down at a 69.3 percent clip to just 63.2 percent against MVC teams.
Yet, Loyola is still winning despite its poor free throw shooting. Outside of free throws, the Ramblers have been efficient offensively — their 49.8 percent field goal shooting ranks fifth in the nation.
The Ramblers just earned a crucial win over Northern Iowa Feb. 15 and sit only a game behind the Panthers for the top spot in the conference. They are drawing fouls at such a high rate and are so defensively stout that the poor free throw percentage hasn’t seemed to matter at times.
For example, the Ramblers went just 4-for-8 from the foul line in overtime against Northern Iowa. But the Ramblers outscored the Panthers 11-2 in the extra period and didn’t concede any free throws to Northern Iowa.
Whether or not Loyola can reach unprecedented levels of success for such a poor free throw shooting team remains to be seen. But the Ramblers are currently riding a three-game winning streak with four games remaining in the regular season.
Next, Loyola is scheduled to play Illinois State University Feb. 19 at Gentile Arena. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m. on NBC Sports Chicago+.