PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas -- Northern Iowa tied a bizarre record on Friday that dates back to the invention of the game of basketball by James Naismith in 1891: The fewest number of free throws attempted in a game.
You can't shoot any fewer than zero.
In a 64-50 loss to a tenacious, smart, fifth-ranked Villanova team, Northern Iowa played a full 40 minutes of basketball without ever getting to the free throw line.
"Our records book just lists 'many times,' which indicates it has happened too many times to count," David Worlock, the director of media coordination and statistics for the NCAA, wrote when asked via email about the precedent.
I can't figure out a great way to tell you exactly how many times this has happened in NCAA history short of going through literally millions of box scores, and I'm not going to do that. But it suffices to say that it's quite rare, especially in a high-profile game.
Sports-Reference only has 14 instances spanning the 30,000-plus total games since it began tracking box score data in 2010-11. The most recent teams to do it: Illinois State (vs. Southern Illinois) and Cal Poly (vs. UC Santa Barbara), oboth on March 4, 2017.
It has never happened in the NBA. The fewest free-throw attempts in a game came on Nov. 26, 1994, when the Cleveland Cavaliers shot two free throws in a game against Golden State.
I asked Northern Iowa players after the game whether it was poor officiating that caused this anomaly and whether there were blown calls that took away what should have been UNI free-throw attempts. "These are young guys -- we gotta be careful with the referee," UNI head coach Ben Jacobson said with a laugh.
But honestly, this wasn't an outgrowth of bad officiating. Not in the least. It was an aggressive game, but both teams played tough defense without fouling. Villanova only had 11 free-throw attempts in the game, but four of those were in the final 90 seconds, as UNI pushed for a comeback. So Villanova went more than 38 minutes and only shot seven free throws.
"We were being strong going to the basket, but defensively they were being straight up," Panthers freshman guard Tywhon Pickford said.
"It probably just worked out that way," sophomore guard Juwan McCloud. "It wasn't really anything about the refs at all. I thought the refs were officiating the game great. It was really just a coincidence, I guess."
It was something else, too: an absolute clinic by Villanova on how to put together a perfect roster for modern ball-screen-heavy defense. The Wildcats showed how to deftly execute those switches and then, when an opponent does get into you offensively, how to defend without fouling.
"With Villanova, their ability to switch -- they don't get stretched out very often because they switch so much," Jacobson said. "Even when they rotate, they do a great job of rotating, but they don't spend much time of their defensive possessions in the rotations. And that's where you're usually at an advantage and can get to the free-throw line. But because they're able to switch so many of the screens, they don't put themselves in a position where they're going to foul much.
"And when you do get by them, their hands go straight up. They're not reaching. They just don't foul."
As bizarre as this zero-free-throw result was, it was also a bit predictable. Villanova is remarkable at defending without fouling. They rank 347th in the nation (out of 351 teams) in the percentage of opponent's points that come from the free throw line, with only 10.8 percent of the points they give up. Last season, no team in college basketball allowed a lower percentage of opponents' points to come from the line. In Thursday's game against a physical and aggressive Tennessee team, Villanova put Tennessee to the line an uncharacteristic 19 times. But in Wednesday's game, Villanova put Western Kentucky on the line four times.
On the flip side, getting to the line is not one of UNI's many strengths. Only 13.8 percent of their offense comes from free throws, 328th in the nation.
After the game, Villanova head coach Jay Wright was at the podium when he leaned over to junior point guard Jalen Brunson and pointed at a number on the stat sheet. Both pairs of eyebrows rose. I asked him whether he knew that his team had just tied an all-time basketball record.
"That's what I just showed Jalen," Wright said. "It was one of the things that we talked about coming into the game, that they're so good and so physical, they drive the ball well, they go inside, they're coached really well. We said, 'Make them earn it, but don't foul them.' I wish listened to me on everything like that. That's impressive. That's really good defense.
"We have a guy like Eric Paschall that can guard (UNI center Bennett) Koch in the post but then switch onto (UNI point guard Juwan) McCloud and guard him. There's not a lot of players that can do that. Daniel Ochefu used to be like that. I think Omari Spellman can get to be that way. Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree can get to be that way. That's something we take pride in."