Behind closed doors, when there are no fans in the seats, free throws can be a beautiful thing at St. Louis University.
In practice sessions, it is not out of the ordinary for Hasahn French to make 80 or more out of 100. And in less specific terms, coach Travis Ford said his team, as a general rule, is extremely accurate at those times no one is watching and the points don’t count.
“We’re making them at an extremely high rate in practice and have been all summer to now,” Ford said. “When you get in a game, you have to be mentally tough to step up and knock those free throws down. I have faith we’ll do it. I don’t know when.”
Entering Wednesday’s 1 p.m. game at Boston College, which is the SLU’s first road opponent of the season, the Billikens are last in the country in free-throw accuracy at 51%. Last season they finished 350th out of 351 teams at 59.8%.
Thus far, the gap in those percentages is stunning. There was a moment in the win over Belmont on Saturday that SLU dropped below 50% before French made three of four in the closing minutes to help secure the victory.
The timely success helped SLU narrowly escape. But Ford, who made 88.5% of his free throws in college, knows the Billikens can’t continue at this pace.
“We’re going to try some new things, keep working on them,” he said recently. “But it’s contagious, I’m afraid. It really is. I’ve talked to coaching friends. I’ve talked to everybody. It looks like we don’t work on them. You can almost feel it in the air sometimes.”
French has struggled throughout his SLU career along with several teammates, Jordan Goodwin included. His style of play lends itself to a lot of free-throw opportunities and he has made 34% this season while averaging 15 points and 10.5 rebounds.
“We like what it looks like,” Ford said of French’s shot. “If he wasn’t out there making 85 of 100 (in practice), we’d have an issue.
“Right now he has to continue to gain confidence. At some point he will consistently get better.”
French was not overly excited by his key free throws against Belmont, saying “I shoot them every day and expect them to go in.”
He’s not the only one who has struggled. Goodwin is making 58%, Jimmy Bell Jr. 43%, Yuri Collins 50% (although he has made eight of his last 10) and Javonte Perkins 57%.
The Billikens shot slightly better on the road last season, making 62% compared with 58% at Chaifetz Arena. In those games at Chaifetz, opponents made 75.6%. There were games in which missed free throws were costly — a loss to Davidson at Chaifetz being most memorable.
This season SLU made one of 12 in the first half against Eastern Washington. The Billikens missed 18 against Seton Hall. And they were four for 16 late in the second half against Belmont.
Against Boston College, the Billikens will face a team that is making 72% from the line. The average in college basketball has ranged from 67% to 70% for decades.
It’s not that SLU is a poor shooting team. Although last in the Atlantic 10 in free throws, the Billikens are fifth in shooting percentage and seventh in 3-pointer percentage.
“There’s no doubt our free throws must improve for our team to get where we want to go,” Ford said. “We’ve been a little fortunate. We’re leaving a lot on the table.”