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Syracuse basketball on pace for best free-throw percentage since 1984

I’m as stunned as you are.

NCAA Basketball: Syracuse at Georgia Tech Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Under Jim Boeheim, Syracuse Orange basketball have not shot free throws well at all.

Granted, that wasn’t ALWAYS the case. When Boeheim started at SU, the team annually hit more than 70 percent of its free throws. From the 1978-79 season through 1984-85, the then-Orangemen actually hit 71 percent or more of all free throws. In 1983-84, the team hit 75 (!!!) percent.

Since that time, however, success from the line has been fleeting. After 1984-85 (71.2 percent), Syracuse topped 70 percent just five times. This year would make it six.

But this season, the Orange aren’t just shooting better than 70 percent. They’re all the way up at 72.8 percent on the year -- the best mark since that 1983-84 season, and the third-best under Boeheim. In conference play, SU is hitting 79.6 percent of all free throws. That’s better than any other team in the ACC (including Notre Dame, who leads the nation in free throw percentage for the full season).

As Brent Axe reminds followers every game, #FreeThrowsMatter. Given the tight contests this particular Orange team’s been locked in over the course of the last month or so, that’s never been more true for the program.

But what’s caused the historic jump in proficiency? And why the extended period of failure from the line? After all, it’s not called the “charity stripe” for nothing. These are a lot of FREE points that SU hasn’t capitalized on over the years.

NCAA Basketball: Monmouth-NJ at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Historically, the Big East’s emphasis on bruising, big man-heavy basketball may have had something to do with it. Big men are rarely quality free throw shooters, and when your lineup has two or three of them in there, it’s bound to hurt your abilities to hit from the line. That 1983-84 team was smaller than most of the Big East era, and as a result, three regular players hit at least 75 percent of free throws. Pearl Washington (also not a big man), surprisingly had the lowest percentage of all regular players that year, at 65.7.

This year, we’re seeing a similar phenomenon. With a small lineup (Tyler Lydon at center) for the majority of ACC play, the team’s not trotting out players who can’t shoot from the line as much. Two of Syracuse’s worst free throw shooters -- Dajuan Coleman and Frank Howard — play sparingly. Tyler Roberson is worse than both (48.1 percent), but he’s not spending a ton of time shooting.

That leaves the lion’s share of foul shots to the rest of the rotation. The top four players in the Syracuse lineup all shoot at least 77 percent from the line. Taurean Thompson is lower at 65.2 percent, but that’s still far more respectable than previous teams’ “lowest” contributor there.

Three players are hitting 81.7 percent or better of their free throws — including John Gillon, who’s on a record streak, and has hit 87 percent of foul shots on the year.

With four more makes (on four attempts) against Louisville this past Sunday, the senior guard has now hit 47 in a row. His last miss was against Florida State. Gillon has already set the Orange record for consecutive makes. He’s also closing in on the ACC record of 66 (NC State’s Scott Wood), as’s Chris Carlson noted on Saturday.

NCAA Basketball: Boston College at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Standing at 87 percent, his current rate would put him 27th on the all-time single season list for the ACC, and just on the outside of the top seven marks in Syracuse history. To little surprise, current Orange assistant Gerry McNamara owns four of those seasons. But two -- 87.2 percent in 2003-04 and 87.4 in 2004-05 -- are within immediate reach for Gillon.

Hitting free throws has been a big part of Syracuse’s late-season resurgence this year. And if they have any chance to make a run at the NCAA Tournament once again, they’ll have to continue that hot streak from the line. If they set some records on the way, so be it. But even just keeping that free throw percentage above 70 could mean all the difference for a team with a habit of playing in close games.