Key to UIC success lies at the foul line

UIC’s ability to score from the field is almost as bad as it gets. The Flames rank No. 350 out of 351 Division I teams with a 41.4 effective field-goal percentage. Their 21.4 turnover percentage, which ranks No. 335 in Division I, does not help the team’s efficiency either.

Yet the Flames have won three of their last four games while playing the Horizon League’s four most-efficient defenses, including the nation’s best in Valparaiso. They are averaging 0.95 points per possession during this stretch. Considering the competition, that’s a pretty good number for a team that had been struggling.

UIC knocked off Cleveland State, another struggling program, to begin the stretch. The Flames then were overmatched in a 73-55 loss to Valparaiso. Since then, they’ve won two in a row: a 64-59 upset of Wright State, who was in second place at the time, and a 79-77 barnburner against Northern Kentucky.

UIC’s shooting came alive in last week’s win against Wright State. The Flames recorded a 54.4 effective field-goal percentage and scored 0.93 points per possession despite turning the ball over in nearly one-third of their possessions.

But even in the two prior games, the Flames shot a total 41.0 effective field-goal percentage. So how has UIC’s offense taken these big strides forward despite having only one game where the team shot above its season average?

The answer lies in free throw shooting.

In Horizon League play, UIC leads the conference with a 51.5 free throw rate, a measure of how many free throws a team shoots per field goal. In other words, for every two field goals the Flames attempts, they are shooting slightly more than one free throw.

UIC is one of 12 teams in the country with a free throw rate greater than 50 percent in conference play, per KenPom. Here is the full list:

UIC forward Tai Odiase attempts a free throw. (Photo: Jesse Kramer / thecatchandshoot.com)
UIC forward Tai Odiase attempts a free throw. The Flames have posted a 63.1 free throw rate in the last four games. (Photo: Jesse Kramer / thecatchandshoot.com)

1. Howard, 56.8

2. West Virginia, 52.1

3. Evansville, 51.8

4. Hawaii, 51.7

5. UIC, 51.5

6. Towson, 51.3

T-7. Chattanooga, 51.1

T-7. Houston Baptist, 51.1

9. Cal State Fullerton, 51.0

10. Eastern Michigan, 50.7

11. South Carolina, 50.5

12. Grambling State, 50.3

Even though the Flames are the worst team in the Horizon League when it comes to making free throws at 60.2 percent, they get to the foul line often enough that it is paying huge dividends.

An astounding 63.1 free throw rate in the last four games has allowed UIC to average 20 points at the stripe despite shooting 58.4 percent there, which is even worse than usual.

The Flames had a breakthrough in Saturday’s win against Northern Kentucky, shooting 22-of-29 on free throws. They have proven they can win just by getting to the line often. Continuing to convert there at a higher clip will only make them more dangerous.

Author: Jesse Kramer

Jesse Kramer is the founder of The Catch and Shoot. He's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. He has had work featured on SI.com, College Insider, The Comeback/Awful Announcing, and 247Sports.

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