St. John's struggling to toe (foul) line

NEW YORK -- Steve Lavin has made a lot of changes in his first eight months as the head coach at St. John's. A lot of positive changes, in fact.

He has signed ESPN's No. 3-ranked recruiting class in the country for next season. He has reignited the Red Storm fan base to a large degree.

But there's at least one thing he hasn't been able to accomplish yet: improve free throw shooting. And it cost the team a game on Tuesday night.

Lavin's senior-laden squad shot just 10-for-20 from the charity stripe at Carnesecca Arena, and St. Bonaventure bounced back from a 10-point deficit with 13:02 to play to stun the Red Storm 67-66.

"I think [foul shooting] was probably the biggest difference," Lavin admitted after the game.

The other team shooting statistics were remarkably similar on this night. St. John's shot 42.4 percent from the field and St. Bonaventure shot 42.0 percent. St. John's shot 42.9 percent from 3-point range, while St. Bonaventure shot 41.2 percent.

But the Bonnies made 18 of 22 free throws, against a Big East team in a hostile environment, and it earned them an upset victory.

Well that, and the jumper 6-foot-9 forward Andrew Nicholson buried from the top of the key with 5.2 seconds left.

St. John's forward Justin Brownlee, who was guarding Nicholson, shouldered the blame, even though it was a difficult shot. "I knew what [Nicholson] was capable of doing out there," Brownlee said. "I think it was just a bad defensive job on my part, to let him get that shot off."

Dwight Hardy, St. John's starting two-guard, has struggled so far this season, shooting 28.6 percent from the floor prior to this game. But he did have his best outing of the season by far on Tuesday, scoring 24 points on 10-for-18 from the field. But his last-gasp attempt from deep in the right corner was heavily guarded, and didn't come close.

"I saw I had an opening when Malik [Stith] was driving down the floor and tried to take the best possible shot I could," Hardy said. "And unfortunately I missed."

But the misses at the free throw line are the bigger concern. At the beginning of the season, Lavin said he had identified three areas -- after watching game tape from last season -- in which his team needed to improve.

One was turnovers -- and his players have done a great job in that area so far, although it is early in the season and St. John's has not yet begun Big East play. Still, coming into Tuesday night's game, the Red Storm were ranked No. 2 in the nation, averaging just 9.5 turnovers per game, down from 12.4 a season ago.

The second area was improved shot selection, which would naturally lead to shooting a higher percentage from the field. Last season the Red Storm shot 42.5 percent, ranking them No. 219 in the country. Coming into Tuesday night, they were shooting 44.7 percent -- again, a significant improvement, although it's early.

And then the third area was free throw shooting. St. John's made a measly 65.2 percent of its foul shots last season, which placed them at No. 278 in the country. Coming into Tuesday night's game, that number was virtually identical -- 65.1 percent.

And a 10-for-20 night won't help it any.

Lavin said his team has been working hard at foul shooting using a number of different approaches -- from having a "100 Club" in which players come in and shoot 100 free throws three times a week, to setting up pressure situations in practice, where a particular player is sent to the foul line and must make free throws in order for the entire team to avoid running sprints.

But there are no guarantees any of that will work.

"You just keep exploring, and trying to look for ways to try and improve your free throw shooting," Lavin said. "In my experience, we've had teams that really shot the ball well from the free throw line and we had teams that didn't, and usually it returned to that form. You know, you might improve a little bit.

"But we're gonna keep plugging away, keep shooting."

They're going to keep shooting. They may improve a little bit, or they may not. The truth is, there may be nothing Lavin can do. This team might just be a poor free throw shooting team, plain and simple.

But if the Red Storm keep shooting this way, it's going to cost them another game or two down the line.

And perhaps a chance to dance.

Kieran Darcy is a staff writer for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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