Pressure Points (cont.)
Of course, as the tournament progresses, we'll remind ourselves that brickitis at the line can be contagious. The two Memphis Tigers who missed those shots against Kansas, guards Derrick Rose and Chris Douglas-Roberts, actually shot above 70% all season. Loehr calls the contagion of bad shooting "cascading energy," and points to the ritualistic touching of hands by players on the shooting team, after a make or miss, as an effective way to keep a negative outcome from spilling over.
We'll recall the episode that stood as last season's tournament cautionary tale until Memphis's Monday Night Meltdown. Forward Joe Alexander might have sent seventh-seeded West Virginia to the Elite Eight after forging a tie with third-seeded Xavier on an and-one turnaround jumper with 14 seconds to play. But as he strode to the line, Alexander took the bait of a boilerplate "You're gonna miss" taunt from Musketeers guard Stanley Burrell. Alexander replied with an expletive, took longer than normal preparing himself at the line and made Burrell a prophet. The Mountaineers lost 79--75 in overtime.
While Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim thinks it's a shopworn association left over from the days when Rony Seikaly and Derrick Coleman struggled at the line -- the Orange shot 11 for 20 in their one-point loss to Indiana in the 1987 NCAA final, and Coleman missed what could have been a game-clinching one-and-one -- we'll continue to regard any Syracuse free throw as an adventure. This season the Orange shot 9 for 18 in a loss at the buzzer to Cleveland State, and junior center Arinze Onuaku, who's shooting just 30.0%, went 10 for 60 during Big East play. If there's any consolation, it's Syracuse's 2--3 zone, which helps account for its opponents' collectively shooting just 17.0 free throws a game. (One advantage to that is that Orange players stay relatively free of foul trouble.)
Fourth-seeded Washington has had its troubles at the line, but it has learned from them. Last year the Huskies were the worst foul-shooting team in Division I, at 58.6%. Coach Lorenzo Romar couldn't indulge in any Caliparian rationalization, as his team finished below .500 and missed the NCAAs. A big culprit was 6' 7", 260-pound center Jon Brockman, who beat a path to the line with his brutish style but sank only 51.9% once he got there. The main reason he's up to 64.9% -- and the Pac-10 regular-season champs have soared to 69.9% as a team -- is because of a drill introduced by assistant coach Jim Shaw. At the end of practice 13 Huskies gather around the key, alternating between two-shot fouls and one-and-ones, squeezing off their shots in turn until they combine to convert 19 of 26 one-and-ones or 20 of 26 two-shot opportunities (up from targets of 17 and 18 back in October). If the group fails to reach its goal, everyone starts over. At first the Huskies took up to 45 minutes to complete the exercise; now they finish in 10 minutes, max. It's critical that the drill not be introduced in January or February as a quick fix. "It's like an antibiotic you take," Romar says. "It builds up mental toughness over time. The numbers speak for themselves."
This season Memphis has abandoned visualization in favor of what Calipari calls "volume shooting" -- 100 foul shots per player per practice, every one charted. "When a kid goes 1 for 5 [in a game]," he says, "I'll say to the team, 'O.K., he's taken 3,500 free throws and made 2,900 -- how do you go 1 for 5? It's all mental. You're thinking too much. That's the only reason you're missing.' " This season the Tigers have sunk 82% in practice and, despite going a fate-tempting 11 for 25 in a one-point defeat of Tulsa in January, upped their in-game percentage to 69.3%, an improvement of 7.9 percentage points.
Oh, and did we mention that tournament-time free throws are confounding? We'll always keep in mind the counterintuitive historical examples of a freshman hero and a senior goat.
When coach Guy Lewis summoned him off the Houston bench late in the 1982 Midwest Regional final against Boston College, Reid Gettys reacted like the freshman he was. "I was panicked," he says. "I had the hardest time finding the guy at the table to check in."
But a calm set in after the Eagles promptly fouled Gettys to send him to the line. He found himself transported to his driveway in Houston, lining up one of the tens of thousands of free throws he had taken over the years, with his dad, Marshall, faithfully rebounding. He made his first two, whereupon he said to himself, "O.K., if they're gonna foul, I'm gonna knock them down."
Employing what he calls a "really dorky-looking" style, with his feet set wide and knees snapping together as he fell forward over the line, Gettys made a couple more on his next trip. Though the Cougars featured the nucleus of the group that would be christened Phi Slamma Jamma the following season, talents like Clyde Drexler and Michael Young were erratic at the line. So Gettys found himself surveying the alternatives -- "Do we wanna take our chances with me at the line, or one of these knuckleheads?" -- and becoming more confident.
He wound up sinking all 10 that he took that afternoon to send the Cougars to the Final Four. Gettys now does color commentary on Big 12 Network telecasts and adds, "I've said 'Foul the freshman' maybe a hundred times on the air. The scared-looking freshman who just checked in to the game -- that's exactly who you foul."
The player you don't foul, conversely, is the senior who's 28 for 28 on the season -- a player like Terry Howard, a guard on the Louisville team that reached the 1975 semifinal game. Even after UCLA coach John Wooden yelled at his players not to foul him, the Bruins sent Howard to the line for a one-and-one with 20 seconds to play in overtime and the Cardinals up by a point. With the three-point shot still a dozen years from being adopted, everyone, himself included, assumed that Howard would put the game away. "Free throws were what I did best," he recalls. "I was where I should be. I still haven't watched [a replay of] the game, but people tell me that it looked like it was going in, spun around, then popped back out."
UCLA got the rebound, and with two seconds left Richard Washington twisted in a jumper from the baseline. In those days the semifinal losers played a consolation game, and at practice the next day Howard sank 87 in a row. Some consolation.
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