Appalachian State's Donald Sims and Wichita State's Clevin Hannah are the top free-throw shooters in the country. Entering this week, Sims had converted on 70 of 73 attempts to Hannah's 42 of 44, and they are separated by only half a point (95.9 percent to 95.4) atop the NCAA's rankings of free-throw percentage.
Sims and Hannah also happen to be black, which would be irrelevant except for this fact: No African-American has ended the season as the nation's best free-throw shooter since 2001. Eight years in a row -- and nine out of the last 10 -- a white guy has been best from the charity stripe.
Given the cliché that the best outside shooters are Indiana farm boys or suburban white kids, that won't register as a surprise, but this might: In addition to Sims and Hannah, the next four ranked free-throw shooters are also black.
"That is crazy," Hannah said. "I would have thought there would have been a white guy in there somewhere."
Added Sims: "Everyone thinks the white guys are the shooters and the black guys do what they do. It's not always like that."
Neither Hannah nor Sims has an explanation for why African-Americans are dominating the free-throw rankings this season. They don't think it signifies anything grand about basketball or race and they are probably right. African-Americans have come close in previous years -- they finished second, third and fourth last season behind Brett Harvey of Loyola (Maryland) -- but just haven't finished first.
For a while, the scales may have been unfairly tipped by the success of Missouri State's Blake Ahearn, considered the greatest free-throw shooter in NCAA history. For three seasons (from 2003-06) he led the nation and no one could beat him, black or white.
Hannah, a 5-foot-11 senior, is an unexpected addition to the rankings, given that he shot 74 percent last season. He was also a good but not great from the foul line the two seasons he played in junior college and in high school in Mississippi.
"I wouldn't say I changed my form or anything. I just focused more," Hannah said. "I knew to help the team I needed to be better from the foul line and I have concentrated on that."
Tales of athletes shooting hundreds of free throws or three-pointers a day during the offseason are common. Hannah's routine during the summer months was simpler. After each drill, be it a ballhandling exercise or a round of outside shots, he would stop and shoot 10 free throws. If he made nine or 10, he moved on to the next drill. If he connected on eight or less, he shot another 10. Needless to say, some days drills moved along smoother than others.
In back-to-back victories over Texas Christian and Texas Tech, Hannah went 9-for-10 and 8-for-8 from the stripe, the latter in a game in which he scored 24 points. He has not missed a free throw since Dec. 12, a span of seven games in which the Shockers have improved to 15-2, included a victory over Missouri Valley Conference rival Creighton last Saturday. Still, Sims overtook Hannah atop the rankings by making all 13 attempts in a 78-68 victory over Davidson last Saturday, during which he also converted 13 of 19 shots from the field, (including five of seven three-pointers) and finished with 41 points.
"I wasn't thinking about how many in a row I had made, I just was thinking that I had to make every one because we needed them," said Sims, a 6-foot-1 junior who averages a team-high 19 points per game.
Sims didn't know that his effort against Davidson moved him to No. 1 until told by a teammate, and he hasn't thought much about it since. Sims shot 86 percent last season and says that in high school he shot around 90 percent. "I just get up there and shoot," he said. "My big brother always told me it is just a routine and just don't spent too much thinking about it. So, I step up, spin the ball, bounce it three times and shoot. That's it."
When presented with the scenario that he could be the first African-American since Villanova's Gary Buchanan in 2000-01 to win the free-throw title, Hannah said it was more important that his team win. Sims said the same but also offered a clarification.
"My mom's black and my dad's white," he says. "I'm not sure which [race] gets the win if I finish first. Both, I guess. I'm the best of both worlds."