Free and Not So Easy
Because foul free throw shooting can be costly, prescriptions for improvement are needed
Last week Duke shot 13 for 27 (48.1%) from the foul line in an 85-83 loss to North Carolina, and Illinois went 11 for 19 (57.9%) in a 98-95 overtime defeat at Penn State. That poor free throw shooting sank two Top 10 teams was no shock. Both the Blue Devils and Michigan State lost their No. 1 rankings earlier this season because of one-point losses in which their players missed foul shots in the final seconds. "A foul shot is 15 feet from the hoop and unguarded, the easiest shot you're going to get in basketball," says Virginia coach Pete Gillen, whose Cavaliers led the ACC in free throw shooting through Sunday at 74.7%. "It's called a free throw, which implies you should make it, but it won't get you on the highlights, so guys don't work on it as much as they should."
There are exceptions to that rule, however—players and teams that have embraced the 15-foot challenge and made themselves proficient from the line. At week's end Villanova sophomore guard Gary Buchanan had made 71 of 72 free throws (98.6%) and was threatening Penn State guard Craig Collins's 1984-85 NCAA single-season percentage mark of 95.9% (minimum 2.5 attempts per game). His secret? "I take three dribbles while looking at the floor, and I don't look at the rim until the last second," he says. "I follow through and picture the ball going through the net."
SI spoke to some other foul-shooting experts about how to curtail the masonry that has been rampant as of late.
?Practice makes perfect.
After missing a critical free throw that cost his team a game against Montana State in January 2000, Idaho State guard Tim Erickson vowed he would become a more reliable foul-shooter. A 78% free-thrower last season, Erickson was satisfied with his technique but knew he had never practiced it much during the off-season. He took more than 5,000 foul shots last summer, and through Sunday he had made 44 of 47 (93.6%) this season. "I told myself after that miss last year that I never wanted to feel that kind of disappointment again," Erickson says. "I kept shooting in the off-season until I believed I would never miss. I'm proof that anybody can become a better free throw shooter. But you have to practice with good form, because bad habits are like a soft chair—easy to fall into and hard to get out of."
?Find your happy place.
Kyle Macy, who holds Kentucky's single-season (91.2% in 1979-80) and career (89.0%) records for free throw percentage, was renowned for his meticulous routine at the line. Before every foul shot he placed his right foot behind the midpoint of the free throw stripe, bent over and wiped his hands on his socks ("People used to think that I wiped my hands to dry them off, but I was really trying to make myself remember to bend my knees on my shot," he says), accepted the ball from the referee, dribbled three times, spun the ball so that the manufacturer's logo faced him, placed the ball squarely on the fingertips of his right hand, bent his knees, cocked his wrist, drew a deep breath and launched the shot. "I believe free throw shooting is 90% mental and only 10% form," says Macy, now the coach at Morehead State, where his Eagles had made 72.5% from the line at week's end. "I don't make my players shoot free throws my way, but I tell them to find a comfortable routine that works for them. Once you find that routine, you should almost fall into a trance. You don't notice arms waving behind the basket or cheerleaders flipping or coins flying out of the stands. You only visualize the shot going in the basket."
?Beware of the rhythm method.
For many years Syracuse was synonymous with lousy free throw shooting, but through Sunday the Orangemen led the Big East at 72.2%. Coach Jim Boeheim credits the improvement to a roster stocked with better shooters than he has had in the past. For years Boeheim's players have worked on free throws for 10 to 15 minutes during every practice, but he says he has learned that nongame stats can be deceiving. "I remember Stevie Thompson [who played for Syracuse in the late 1980s] would make 87, 88, 89 out of 100 in practice and then shoot 46% in games," Boeheim says. "That's because in practice he missed four of his first five. Once you get a rhythm, anybody can make them, but it's not like that in a game. You play 10 minutes, don't shoot any, and then you shoot two. You miss one of those and you're a 50% shooter."
?When all else fails, use threats.
After 13 games this season, Ball State was shooting less than 60% from the line, and coach Tim Buckley believed poor foul-shooting had cost the Cardinals three games. When endless practice didn't work, Buckley employed a more radical approach: "I told our guys that from now on, anytime we don't shoot at least 70 percent from the line in a game, we'd run at six o'clock the next morning. It's amazing what that does for your concentration."
Ball State sank 12 of 14 free throws in its next game, a 52-51 upset victory at Toledo. Through Sunday the Cardinals had shot 71.9% from the line in their six games since Buckley's ultimatum—and done an early-morning run just twice.