Pressure Points (cont.)
That season Howard's coach, Denny Crum, required every Cardinal to make 10 straight free throws before he could leave practice, a target that Howard could hit without a second thought. Today Crum's successor, Rick Pitino, requires Louisville's guards and small forwards to sink 12 in a row (big men need only make six) -- and his Cards (64.6% shooters from the line) are demonstrably worse than Crum's '75 team (75.2%). But, then, to go down the 15-foot rabbit hole is to enter a world of paradox, where nuggets of received wisdom turn out to have a crack or three upon closer examination. Consider:
Foul the freshman. Maybe -- but not just any freshman, as the case of Gettys demonstrates. True, your likelihood of sinking a free throw increases as you ascend from class to class -- this season, freshmen made 65.6%, sophomores 68.4%, juniors 69.9% and seniors 70.8%, according to College Basketball Prospectus co-author Ken Pomeroy, who contributed statistical analysis to this report -- but there are sure-shooting first-year players like Oklahoma's Willie Warren (78.0%) and Butler's Gordon Hayward (81.5%) who can defy convention.
Ice the shooter. Pomeroy has crunched data from more than 7,000 games going back five seasons, and he finds that, overall, foul shooters during the final minute of regulation or overtime will make 72.2%, versus 71.0% immediately after a timeout. In other words, barely one of every 100 timeouts called to unnerve a shooter correlates with a missed free throw. Coaches, Pomeroy suggests, might want to spend their timeouts more wisely.
The better free-throw-shooting team has a decisive advantage in a close game. Not necessarily. Over the past six seasons, on those occasions when they've faced off, the 50 best free-throw-shooting teams in the nation have beaten the 50 worst in games decided by three points or fewer only 50.6% of the time. And this season the better foul shooters have won only 10 of 25 such tight games. Which further suggests that every pressure free throw is an adventure unto itself.
There's an obsessive Australian-Lithuanian émigré who thinks that's an unconscionable state of affairs. He believes that, if you lose by X, and you missed X+1 or more free throws, there are precisely X+1 reasons you lost. Moreover, you can do something about it, just as he did -- and if you don't, it's your own damn fault.
In the space of a second Eddie Palubinskas faced a choice: head for the icy river or take his chances with the bridge abutment. Negotiating the bend of a back road in Utah, where he was coaching high school hoops seven years after an All-SEC career at LSU, Palubinskas felt his car spin out on a patch of black ice. He chose the bridge abutment. The crash essentially shattered the right side of his body, leaving his shooting arm with a compound fracture.
Palubinskas had been a superb free throw shooter in college: 87.5% at LSU in the '70s. But during rehab he became obsessed with closing what he calls "the imperfect gap," those seven or eight percentage points between his personal best and perfection. First in his hospital bed, then in a wheelchair stationed beneath the basket, and finally back at the line, he fiddled with such variables as the spread of his fingers on the ball, the orientation of the grain and the alignment of his elbow. He decided that the likeliest "culprit" in any missed free throw is lateral movement of joints or muscles that leads to a deviation from a straight line.
Palubinskas essentially rebuilt his mechanics from scratch, and for the quarter century since -- whether horsing around in his driveway in Greenwell Springs, La., or playing in his men's league -- he has made 99 of every 100 he takes. "The ball responds to one message, and that's the physical force given it," says Palubinskas. "The ball doesn't care about psychology. Once you master the mechanics, there is no choking. The game is almost 120 years old, and we're still operating at a level of mediocrity."
Palubinskas believes that foul shooting would improve if TV commentators pointed out when a player moves the gun barrel at the end of a shot. ("See, Jim, lateral movement of the elbow!") Instead it has remained stuck around 68% for a half century. "If you make 18 of 18 and lose by one, that's a legitimate loss, but others are illegitimate," he says. "They say defense wins games, but how do you defend a free throw? If you lose by two and miss six free throws, that's the Number 1 statistic you should attack."
Among squandered NCAA titles, Houston in 1983 (missed nine, lost by two), Syracuse in '87 (missed nine, lost by one), Kentucky in '97 (missed eight, lost by five) and Kansas in 2003 (missed 18, lost by three) all failed the Eddie P. Test. That 2003 Jayhawks loss was particularly egregious; they trailed Syracuse by 11 at the break and, given multiple chances to catch up, bricked 13 of 17 free throws in the second half.
Statistics tell us that foul shooters improve by 5-to-7 percentage points per level as they advance from high school through college to the pros. Palubinskas proposes that a player at any level simply accelerate his date with destiny by getting the coaching, and putting in the work as soon as possible after puberty, when most players are strong enough to reach the hoop with replicable, adult form. Yet to hear him tell it, college coaches are too busy recruiting, addressing Rotary Clubs or screaming at their guys to "Rebound!" to do the teaching that would transform a 66% freshman ahead of schedule. Former Florida star Joakim Noah offers an example of how individual and team improvement can go hand in hand: A year after shooting 57.7% as a freshman, Noah improved to 73.3% as the Gators won the first of back-to-back NCAA titles in 2006. Florida coach Billy Donovan has credited the very thing that Palubinskas pines for: "relentless commitment."
That phrase is both companion and rejoinder to Memphis's epitaph of a season ago. "We'll make 'em when it counts" may be a great signal to send to your guys. It may serve as a brave public front. But between now and April 6, to paraphrase Coach Cal, we'll count 'em when they're made.
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