Pressure Points: When the charity stripe is anything but charitable
In NCAA tournament games, some of the biggest wins come down to free throws
Last season, Memphis lost the title game thanks in part to missed free throws
Coaches, players say the difference between a make and miss is often mental
If ever a college basketball coach set himself up for a reckoning, John Calipari did one year ago this month. With his Memphis team in the midst of winning a single-season NCAA record of 38 games, the world chose to pick at the scab on an otherwise flawless complexion: the Tigers' inability to make more than 62% of their free throws. Calipari had his story and was sticking to it. "I'm not worried," he repeated, even wagering dinner with a call-in radio host. "We'll make 'em when it counts."
Calipari's Tigers famously didn't make 'em when it counted most. They missed four of five foul shots in the final 75 seconds of regulation in last April's NCAA championship game, permitting Kansas to force overtime and go on to win.
But here's the thing: Calipari was worried, worried enough to try all sorts of things behind the scenes to remediate his team's results at the line. He adopted a variation of the tennis ladder, that country-club staple, to try to tap into his players' natural competitiveness. He fielded advice from old adversary John Chaney, the former Temple coach who once famously threatened to kill him. He even ordered the Tigers to stop practicing free throws altogether once the tournament began, substituting bedtime visualization. (Forget world peace; Coach Cal settled for 10 imaginary swishes in a row, from preshot routine to follow-through.) By March he was looking forlornly into an empty toolbox, like a Fed chairman who had already cut interest rates to zero. In the meantime, for public consumption, he kept repeating, "We'll make 'em when it counts," trying to build up his players' confidence. "It's a good message to send, that you have total faith when the time comes," says sports psychologist Jim Loehr.
But the failure of Coach Cal's guys to come through underscores both the outsized importance and confounding fickleness of the tournament-time free throw. Since the NCAA field expanded to 64 in 1985, only two teams have won a title shooting less than 66% from the line, and none with a free throw percentage below 62%. A National Association of Basketball Coaches' study found that, while foul shots account for about a quarter of the scoring in a typical game, winning teams score a full two thirds of their points in the final minute from the line, that place where, as former Texas coach Abe Lemons once put it, "you get to shoot unguarded."
Yet while every other act in the game is performed against defensive pressure, a free throw's very freedom can seem like psychological imprisonment -- even more so when the shot takes place on the game's most public and pressurized stage. "It does not compute that you can be 30 or 40 percent from three-point range and only a 68 percent shooter at the line," says Loehr. "So the athlete begins to think about it. Where a pick-and-roll is instantaneous, time stands still during a free throw, and your mind can get active and interfere with what is a fine motor skill."
Regardless of whether the free throw is primarily mind or matter, over the next three weeks we'll impute an advantage to North Carolina, which not only shoots 76.3% but also reliably places the ball in the hands of two upperclassmen who shoot better than 80%: center Tyler Hansbrough, who has made more free throws than anyone else in collegiate history, and point guard Ty Lawson.
Usually, though, in the crucible of the game's final minutes, it matters less whether a team as a whole is accurate from the line than whether its guards are. Backcourt players shoot more than three percentage points better than their frontcourt counterparts, and a well-drilled team makes sure its guards handle the ball during a game's decisive moments. (Free throw shooting overall is demonstrably best at crunch time, with players sinking 72% in the final minute versus a meager 68% over the entire game -- but that discrepancy is probably less the result of teams' delivering in the clutch than of their putting the ball into the hands of good foul shooters.) UCLA has the best free throw shooter in the field in guard Darren Collison, who leads the nation at 91.2%, while swingman Josh Shipp sinks 78.5%; Texas will want to make sure that guards Dogus Balbay (45.0%) and Justin Mason (52.6%) yield to A.J. Abrams (84.0%) in a game's late stages.
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