Duke is one of the nation's top offensive teams—the Blue Devils are scoring with ease, using a lethal transition attack to put them third in KenPom's adjusted offensive efficiency behind just No. 6 Nevada and No. 1 Gonzaga.
Yet, Duke's effort from the charity stripe thus far has been abysmal.
"[Our] free-throw shooting was just so bad," head coach Mike Krzyzewski said after the Blue Devils' win against Indiana last week. "I mean, there’s no nice way to say it."
It doesn't take a basketball nerd to see Duke's struggles at the line. On the season, the Blue Devils have made just 65.0 percent of their free-throw attempts—good for 284th of 353 Division I teams with the only other ranked team worse than them being No. 2 Kansas at 64.2 percent. Furthermore, if Duke manages to maintain its woeful free-throw pace, it would be the worst year by a Blue Devil team since 1961-62 when that group hit just 63.3 percent of its 700 chances at the foul line.
But it doesn't necessarily appear as if this is some fluke or a one-year drop-off. As recently as 2009-10—when Duke won its fourth national championship—the Blue Devils finished eighth in the nation in free-throw percentage. Now-associate head coach Jon Scheyer led the way with an 87.8 percent clip and that Duke squad had three players, Scheyer, Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith all shoot better than 76 percent at the line.
Since then, the Blue Devils have finished sixth or worse in the ACC in free-throw shooting in four of the eight seasons, with last year being Duke's worst as it ended 11th in the league at 71.0 percent.
Of the Blue Devils' backcourt regulars this year, R.J. Barrett has left the most points at the line. The Canadian rookie has missed 22 of his 60 tries from the stripe, and classmates Tre Jones and Zion Williamson haven't been much better—both Jones and Williamson have only hit on two-thirds of their attempts.
One of Barrett's most glaring moments came in the game against Eastern Michigan. After getting fouled on a triple in the opening minutes, Barrett clanked the first two of his three free throws, drawing a handful of groans from the crowd at Cameron Indoor.
"It kind of motivates me to make the next one," Barrett said afterwards. "You’ve just got to put that one behind you."
It doesn't help that Duke big men Javin DeLaurier and Marques Bolden are a combined 22-of-39 as well, even though they are as likely as anyone to head to the line given that they spend plenty of time in the crowded paint.
The result? An offense that has missed on plenty of chances to turn blowouts into complete beatdowns. And even in that Maui title game defeat, although the Bulldogs were off the mark on eight of their 19 shots from the charity stripe, the Blue Devils left six points out there as well—enough that could've possibly swung the result in their favor.
"A lot of times in games we've been up by a pretty wide margin, so guys may not be as focused," DeLaurier said when asked Monday why the team has struggled on free throws. "When you're up 15, 20 points, it's like, 'Okay, if I miss this, what's really going to happen?' But that comes back to bite you in close games. When we play good teams and we're in those fights, all of a sudden, those misses hurt on the scoreboard a lot more."
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The point is more than a fair one. Of Duke's eight games, the Blue Devils have been able to turn on the cruise control for the second half in six contests. But after three more seemingly harmless nonconference matchups, the road will get much tougher, with No. 13 Texas Tech, ACC play and St. John's on the horizon.
Still, Duke is going to be able to dominate with its offense on most nights. The Blue Devils have—in Barrett and Williamson—two of the 25 best offensive players in the nation among guys used on at least 28 percent of possessions, not to mention an über-efficient point guard in Jones.
The numbers suggest, however, Duke needs start to cleaning things up when it comes to points that are supposed to be, well, free.
Hank Tucker contributed reporting.
Note: This story was updated at 6 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 9 to reflect statistical changes.