Overcoming The Fourth Factor
Virginia continues to win, despite one major offensive shortcoming.
Despite the three-point revolution we all discuss, one old-school offensive principle remains true: free throws are the most efficient source of offense in modern college basketball.
Last season, the average two-point field goal attempt was worth 0.99 points per shot. The average three-point field goal attempt was worth 1.01 points per shot. The average trip to the foul line was worth 1.43 points per trip.
In other words, offenses should want to get to the line.
Don’t tell that to someone like John Beilein. Beilein — who is one of the highest regarded offensive minds of the past two decades — never had a team rank higher than 258th in free throw rate during his 12-year Michigan tenure.
With Beilein retired, Tony Bennett is the most notable active coach employing an offensive style of play that naturally suppresses free throws.
In this newsletter, we’ll explore Virginia’s lack of free throws and what happened last season when a proven foul-drawing standout like Jayden Gardner joins the roster and settles into the offensive system.
Virginia’s Lack of Free Throws
When we think of Tony Bennett and Virginia’s style of play, the first thing that likely comes to mind is pace. Virginia has consistently been one of the slowest-paced teams in the country throughout Bennett’s tenure.
However, pace is hardly the only statistical category where Virginia’s style of play leads to extreme results; take free throws, for example.
In Virginia’s Blocker-Mover offense, they tend to finish near the bottom of the country at drawing fouls. Similarly, their pack line defense prevents their opponents from getting to the line.
The following graph contains the average tempo and offensive free throw rate of teams from top six conferences since Tony Bennett was hired by Virginia prior to the 2010 season.
The x-axis is average adjusted tempo and the y-axis is average free throw rate.
Virginia shows up in the bottom left corner of the graph. Since 2010, they rank dead last in tempo and nearly last in free throw rate (only ahead of Michigan and Northwestern).
The Virginia effect on Jayden Gardner
When Bennett and his staff brought East Carolina transfer Jayden Gardner into the Virginia system, something had to give.
Gardner truly excelled at getting to the foul line during his time at ECU. He finished in the top 50 nationally in fouls drawn per 40 minutes in each three of his seasons at ECU — drawing about 6.4 fouls per 40.
The question entering his first season in the ACC was if he could maintain that free throw rate despite Virginia’s tendency to suppress free throws.
When all was said and done, Gardner started all 35 games and led the team in usage rate, but was notably unable to maintain his usual free throw volume. At Virginia, he drew just 3.8 fouls per 40.
That’s not uncommon for up-transfers like Gardner. Back in April of 2020, we wrote a newsletter (The Truth About Transfers) showing that up-transfers tend to shoot more threes and draw fewer fouls.
When did ran that analysis, though, the drop in free throw rate was associated with a drop in usage rate. Gardner, on the other hand, actually maintained his usage rate even after moving up a level.
So what is it specifically about Virginia’s offensive scheme that suppressed Gardner’s ability to draw fouls?
1) Fewer transition opportunities
The first reason for Gardner’s decline in free throw rate at Virginia is the most obvious: Fewer transition opportunities.
In his final season at ECU, Gardner averaged about three individual transition possessions per game. On those transition possessions, he drew a foul 27% of the time.
Here’s an example of Gardner being aggressive in transition at ECU. After the defensive rebound, he pushes the ball up himself and goes coast-to-coast to the rim.
At Virginia, Gardner’s free throw drawing ability in transition was actually about the same. He drew a foul on 26% of transition possessions.
The difference, however, was he had significantly fewer transition opportunities. He averaged just 0.5 transition possessions per game during his first season in Charlottesville; taken another way, that means Gardner’s opportunities in transition dropped more than 80% after joining Virginia.
In comparison to the first clip above, look at the difference when Gardner grabs a rebound here.
The “grab and go” was no longer an option for Gardner. Instead, Virginia preferred to control tempo and get into their halfcourt offense.
2) Different types of post-ups
At both East Carolina and Virginia, Gardner was used in the post. However, the context behind those post-ups were different.
In his final season at ECU, Gardner recorded 23 “post pins” (per Synergy) — more physical post-ups where the offensive player is attempting to get an angle on his defender.
Here’s an example of a post pin against Cincinnati.
The physical post pin forced #2 Keith Williams to give help from the baseline — leading to a bucket and a foul.
At Virginia, Gardner recorded just seven post pins (despite playing in 16 more games than in his last season at ECU).
Gardner still played through the post in the Blocker-Mover offense, but with a much more finesse — often facing up — style.
Here he sets a pin down, North Carolina switches, and watch how the ball then goes into the post.
Instead of physically attempting to create an angle to the basket, Gardner receives the pass off of the block and faces up — ultimately hitting the one-legged Dirk fadeaway.
If we had a spectrum of all of the different types post-ups, a physical post pin (like in ECU clip) would be on one end and a finesse Dirk fadeaway (like in the NC State clip) would be on the complete opposite end.
That difference in post-up style is another reason for Gardner’s drop in free throw rate.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before… There’s always a trade-off
Just about every Hoop Vision newsletter inevitably comes back to the same point: Every choice around scheme or strategy has a trade-off.
Getting to the foul line is almost always a good thing for an offense — in a vacuum.
But basketball isn’t played in a vacuum.
Virginia’s style of play happens to lead to particularly severe trade-offs, but we’ve certainly seen them continue to win big despite slow tempo and/or low free throw volume.
In 2019, the Hoos won the national championship despite finishing 352nd in adjusted tempo and 279th in free throw rate (per kenpom).
In 2021, Tony Bennett’s team was third in the ACC in offensive points per possession despite finishing 15th in the conference in free throw rate.
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Special thanks to Hoop Vision contributor Jason Fang for his help with this newsletter. Give him a follow on Twitter here.
Thanks for this great write-up, it’s very easy to follow! I was hoping to read a bit more on what the particular trade-offs that you referenced at the end are. The decision to de-prioritize transition points makes sense from a pace POV, but I’m not clear why e.g. finesse play is prioritized over something Gardner clearly excelled at previously. Perhaps the expectation was that his physicality was less useful against high-major bigs, but this decision doesn’t seem limited enough to Gardner or to low-major transfers at Virginia for that to be the full explanation. Is there something in particular Virginia’s getting in return for its seemingly lower-efficiency post looks?