One thing you'll hear repeatedly when watching Michigan State play is that the team simply cannot shoot free throws. At all. Now if you're not well versed with the team you may wonder if a few poor outings has led this to become one of the talking points commentators flock to in attempt to sound educated on the team, especially if they haven't watched many Big Ten games this year. Well there were 351 teams active in Division 1 basketball this season. Out of those 351 teams the Spartans finished an absolutely dreadful 336th in the nation, finishing just above teams like Nicholls State and Morgan State.
There's a little saying and it's that free throws win games. While free throws alone won't usually win or lose a game, they can absolutely be killer when you struggle from the charity stripe. When it comes to close games it makes little to no sense to leave potential points off the board, while struggling to hit from the free throw line can cost you late leads in close games. As a Purdue fan I know this story far too well, including their NCAA Tournament experience ending prematurely thanks to missing the front end of a one-and-one and then splitting a pair of free throws in the last 30 seconds, allowing Cincinnati to force overtime and steal a one point victory (should be mentioned Purdue also missed a pair of free throws in the closing minutes as well).
The Spartans almost shared Purdue's fate in the Elite Eight against Louisville as the Cardinals were forced to foul in the closing seconds of regulation. Up by a point and sending a 68% free throw shooter in Marvin Clark Jr. to the line, Clark would go on to brick both shots and gave Louisville the chance for the win after a foul on Clark with five seconds remaining. Luckily for Sparty, Mangok Mathiang couldn't convert on his second free throw attempt and the Spartans clipped the Cardinals in overtime.
While the Spartans next opponent, the Duke Blue Devils, are only a so-so free throw shooting team, they still shoot around 6% better from the stripe than the Spartans and have shown the ability to convert on their opportunities. In their only tournament game so far decided by single digits, Duke hit 20 of 26 attempts to help keep Utah at bay in a six point victory.
Free throws have cost Michigan State games this season and is probably the Achilles heel for this team. Look no further than their ugly home loss to Illinois. Down only two points with 33 seconds remaining the Spartans only hit one of three free throws, failing to tie (or take the lead). It was the cherry on top of a 7 of 18 day and the Illini fittingly sealed the deal by making their last six free throws down the stretch. Even more recently was an overtime loss to Minnesota, a game that went to overtime thanks to the Spartans only converting on 65.5% of their 29 attempts, including a split pair of free throws that allowed the Gophers to tie the game in the closing seconds on a three pointer just before the buzzer.
State has also shot 44.4% in a regular season loss to Wisconsin, 60% in a two point loss to Nebraska, 67.9% in a two point loss to Maryland, 57.1% in a loss to Texas Southern, 55.6% in a one point loss to Notre Dame and only 60% in a close loss to Duke early in the season. Sound like a recurring problem? These were all close and entirely winnable games the Spartans dropped throughout the season.
The reality is we can talk all about how the 27-11 Michigan State Spartans are a massive underdog who are a huge surprise this tournament, but the more accurate reality is that the Spartans were a near elite program that had a resume full of losses simply because they are a horrible free throw shooting team. If the Spartans were an average free throw shooting team there's a solid chance that most of their losses simply wouldn't have happened. Looking back at close wins over Georgia, Virginia and Oklahoma and you'll see a team that has shot 11-19, 20-33 and 9-16 from the line. If the Spartans could have been more efficient from the line then all three of those games would have been decisively easier victories. It also shows what the Spartans need to do if they want to advance to the title game.
When everything is said and done there will be a lot of talk heading into the weekend about free throws. When everything is said and done Michigan State's rise from middling Big Ten team to Final Four has seemed considerably more impressive than it actually is, with the Spartans being a truly great team simply incapable of converting from the charity stripe. If State finds a way to keep their woes from the line at bay for at least another night than there's little reason to doubt the possibility of the Spartans edging Duke this Saturday. If the Spartans keep in line with what they've done this season, though, then another close-but-winnable game could very well be in the cards for Tom Izzo and his beloved Spartans.