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
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.
The Tide Is Rolling
After taking over the struggling Alabama program in March 1998,
Mark Gottfried, who came to the Crimson Tide after having
coached Murray State for three seasons, resisted the temptation
of a quick fix. Instead of signing a bunch of lesser-rated high
school seniors or itinerant junior college transfers, Gottfried
locked his sights on the best high school underclassmen in his
state, beginning with Rod Grizzard, then a junior forward at
Central Park Christian School in Birmingham. Gottfried made his
first recruiting visit to Grizzard's home, and Grizzard rewarded
him by committing to Alabama on the spot. "I wanted to plant oak
trees, not shrubs," Gottfried says. "It takes a little longer to
do it that way, but when you're done you're in much better shape."
It hasn't taken long for the 37-year-old Gottfried to mount a
renaissance at his alma mater. Thanks largely to the four
sophomores in his lineup, led by the 6'8" Grizzard, the SEC's top
scorer with an 18.5 point average at week's end, the 18th-ranked
Crimson Tide (17-4, 6-3 in the SEC) appears likely to reach the
NCAA tournament for the first time in six years. Alabama has
struggled on the road (the Tide is 1-3 away from home), but
Gottfried has inspired the most basketball interest in
football-mad Tuscaloosa since former coach Wimp Sanderson took
Alabama to the Sweet 16 six times from 1981 through '92.
Crimson Tide players started looking toward this year as soon as
their 13-16 season ended with a loss to South Carolina in the
first round of the SEC tournament last March. "I told them I
would give them five days off," Gottfried says. "Then they
should get ready to work harder than they ever had in their
Alabama has performed well despite a smaller-than-expected
contribution from 6'7" freshman Gerald Wallace, last season's
Naismith high school player of the year, from Childersburg,
Ala., who flirted with the idea of entering last spring's NBA
draft. Wallace scored 20.3 points per game in Alabama's first
six outings, but in the 15 games thereafter he had averaged only
8.1. Wallace made his first start of the season last Saturday
against LSU, but he played only 17 minutes--three in the second
half--in a 76-66 win. Instead of carping about his role,
however, Wallace seems to be enjoying it. "I had a lot of hype
in high school, and it gets old," he says. "I'm happy just to
Gottfried has been irked at times by the Crimson Tide's lack of
intensity on the road, but he understands that his players have a
lot of growing up to do. "These kids still need to learn to
compete better," Gottfried said after the LSU win. "I'll tell you
what, though, it feels pretty good to be 17-4 and still feel like
you're running through mud." --Seth Davis
Georgia State's Driesell
Ol' Lefty Is a Winner Again
There's a small sign in Lefty Driesell's office at Georgia State
that reads: IF THE GOING'S GETTING EASIER, YOU AIN'T CLIMBING.
Living by that philosophy, Driesell accepted the coaching job at
Georgia State, an Atlanta commuter college, in March 1997, even
though the Panthers had one of the worst programs in the nation.
A school with only three winning seasons in 34 years met a coach
with only two losing seasons in 35. But just as he did at
Davidson, Maryland and James Madison earlier in his career,
Driesell is winning big.
Georgia State's 75-58 victory over Jacksonville State last
Saturday ran its record to 20-3. (The Panthers already had
surpassed the school record of 17 wins.) "I've always enjoyed
the challenge of building a team," Driesell says. "People
appreciate success more in places where they haven't had much,
and I thought this was a sleeping giant."
Driesell, 69, is the Father Flanagan of college basketball. Ten
of Georgia State's 12 players began their careers at other
schools. Senior guard Shernard Long, who was second in the Trans
America Athletic Conference in scoring (17.4 points per game)
through Sunday, is a transfer from Georgetown. Senior point
guard Kevin Morris, who is tied for first with Long as the
league's steals leader (2.74), is a refugee from Georgia Tech.
The Panthers' leader in rebounding (6.9) and three-point
percentage (.411), 6'7" junior center Thomas Terrell, came from
Copiah-Lincoln Community College in Wesson, Miss. Driesell has
turned a roster featuring seven new players into the
highest-scoring team in the TAAC (80.0). "We're a bunch of
basketball gypsies," Long says. "A lot of us were coaches'
nightmares who got a second chance, and we're united by a
promise to check our egos at the door."
Driesell is trying to guide the Panthers to their second NCAA bid
and join Oklahoma State's Eddie Sutton as the only coaches to
take four schools to the tournament. One of the most celebrated
coaches never to reach a Final Four, Driesell had 753 career
victories through Sunday, making him second among active coaches.
Despite spinal surgery on Dec. 19 that will require him to wear a
neck brace for the rest of this season, Driesell recently signed
a contract extension through the 2003-04 season. "I'm still
having fun, so why would I want to retire?" he says. "If we stop
winning, then I'll quit, because I can't stand losing."
For complete scores and recruiting news, plus more from Seth
Davis and Grant Wahl, go to cnnsi.com/basketball/college.
WEEKLY SEED REPORT
Our selection committee had plenty to ponder after three No. 1
seeds and two No. 2s lost last week. Amid all that carnage,
Stanford stayed No. 1 in the West despite its first defeat of the
season, to UCLA. North Carolina's victory over Duke gave the Tar
Heels the top seed in the East, while the Blue Devils slid over
to the No. 1 spot in the South. Only Kansas, a loser to Missouri,
lost its top seed, giving way to Michigan State in the Midwest.
New to the ranks are Florida, which is healthy again and debuts
as a third seed, and Boston College, which comes in as a No. 4.
Bye-bye Wake Forest (a loser to Virginia) and Fresno State (an
18-point drubbing by Hawaii).
1. North Carolina (19-2)
2. Arizona (15-6)
3. Syracuse (18-3)
4. Wisconsin (14-5)
1. Duke (20-2)
2. Tennessee (18-4)
3. Iowa State (19-3)
4. Boston College (16-2)
1. Michigan State (18-2)
2. Kansas (18-2)
3. Virginia (16-4)
4. Georgetown (18-3)
1. Stanford (20-1)
2. Illinois (17-5)
3. Florida (15-4)
4. Maryland (15-6)
The Joe College Report
In the month since Seton Hall's Eddie Griffin put a shiner on
teammate Ty Shine, the Pirates have gone 2-5 (putting them at
3-6 in the Big East) and are in danger of missing the NCAA
tournament. The Hall's latest black eye? Losing to Rutgers,
which was winless in the conference, by blowing a 17-point lead
with less than 12 minutes to go....
If Illinois fails to win the Big Ten title, the Illini won't
look back fondly on last week's overtime loss at Penn State. For
the final 29 seconds of the first half, as the Nittany Lions
capped off a 13-4 run, Illinois played with four men. "That was
hilarious," said Penn State guard Joe Crispin. "I told
[Illinois's] Cory Bradford, 'You guys are a lot easier to beat
when you have four guys out there.'" Then again, is it any
wonder the Illini's boner took place in the 11-team Big Ten?...
Tennessee point guard Tony Harris left the Vols' 72-50 win over
Vanderbilt with 13:53 remaining in the first half, and although
he later returned, he played a total of only eight minutes. The
reason: Harris sprained his wrist high-fiving a teammate....
Bravo to play-by-play broadcasters for the other Big 12 teams
and for Oral Roberts, who will fill in during the rest of the
season for Oklahoma State's Bill Teegins, one of the 10 victims
in the team-plane crash on Jan. 27. The announcers will work
each game for $500 and donate the money to a memorial fund that
will go toward a broadcast journalism scholarship at OSU.
Learfield Communications, which produces the Cowboys'
broadcasts, will match the donations.