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PRESSURE POINTS

March 23, 2009
March 23, 2009

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March 23, 2009

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PRESSURE POINTS

A free throw's very freedom can seem like psychological imprisonment—especially during the NCAA tournament, when laying it all on the line takes on outsized importance, and the charity stripe is often anything but charitable

IF EVER a collegebasketball coach set himself up for a reckoning, John Calipari did one year agothis month. With his Memphis team in the midst of winning a single-season NCAArecord of 38 games, the world chose to pick at the scab on an otherwiseflawless complexion: the Tigers' inability to make more than 62% of their freethrows. Calipari had his story and was sticking to it. "I'm notworried," he repeated, even wagering dinner with a call-in radio host."We'll make 'em when it counts."

This is an article from the March 23, 2009 issue

Calipari's Tigersfamously didn't make 'em when it counted most. They missed four of five foulshots in the final 75 seconds of regulation in last April's NCAA championshipgame, permitting Kansas to force overtime and go on to win. But here's thething: Calipari was worried, worried enough to try all sorts of things behindthe scenes to remediate his team's results at the line. He adopted a variationof the tennis ladder, that country-club staple, to try to tap into his players'natural competitiveness. He fielded advice from old adversary John Chaney, theformer Temple coach who once famously threatened to kill him. He even orderedthe Tigers to stop practicing free throws altogether once the tournament began,substituting bedtime visualization. (Forget world peace; Coach Cal settled for10 imaginary swishes in a row, from preshot routine to follow-through.) ByMarch he was looking forlornly into an empty toolbox, like a Fed chairman whohad already cut interest rates to zero. In the meantime, for publicconsumption, he kept repeating, "We'll make 'em when it counts," tryingto build up his players' confidence. "It's a good message to send, that youhave total faith when the time comes," says sports psychologist JimLoehr.

But the failure ofCoach Cal's guys to come through underscores both the outsized importance andconfounding fickleness of the tournament-time free throw. Since the NCAA fieldexpanded 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 NationalAssociation of Basketball Coaches' study found that, while foul shots accountfor about a quarter of the scoring in a typical game, winning teams score afull two thirds of their points in the final minute from the line, that placewhere, as former Texas coach Abe Lemons once put it, "you get to shootunguarded."

Yet while everyother act in the game is performed against defensive pressure, a free throw'svery freedom can seem like psychological imprisonment—even more so when theshot takes place on the game's most public and pressurized stage. "It doesnot compute that you can be 30 or 40 percent from three-point range and only a68 percent shooter at the line," says Loehr. "So the athlete begins tothink about it. Where a pick-and-roll is instantaneous, time stands stillduring a free throw, and your mind can get active and interfere with what is afine motor skill."

Regardless ofwhether the free throw is primarily mind or matter, over the next three weekswe'll impute an advantage to North Carolina, which not only shoots 76.3% butalso reliably places the ball in the hands of two upperclassmen who shootbetter than 80%: center Tyler Hansbrough, who has made more free throws thananyone 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 asa whole is accurate from the line than whether its guards are. Backcourtplayers shoot more than three percentage points better than their frontcourtcounterparts, and a well-drilled team makes sure its guards handle the ballduring a game's decisive moments. (Free throw shooting overall is demonstrablybest at crunch time, with players sinking 72% in the final minute versus ameager 68% over the entire game—but that discrepancy is probably less theresult of teams' delivering in the clutch than of their putting the ball intothe hands of good foul shooters.) UCLA has the best free throw shooter in thefield (box, page 44) 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 guardsDogus Balbay (45.0%) and Justin Mason (52.6%) yield to A.J. Abrams (84.0%) in agame's late stages.

OF COURSE, as thetournament progresses, we'll remind ourselves that brickitis at the line can becontagious. The two Memphis Tigers who missed those shots against Kansas,guards Derrick Rose and Chris Douglas-Roberts, actually shot above 70% allseason. Loehr calls the contagion of bad shooting "cascading energy,"and points to the ritualistic touching of hands by players on the shootingteam, after a make or miss, as an effective way to keep a negative outcome fromspilling over.

We'll recall theepisode that stood as last season's tournament cautionary tale until Memphis'sMonday Night Meltdown. Forward Joe Alexander might have sent seventh-seededWest Virginia to the Elite Eight after forging a tie with third-seeded Xavieron an and-one turnaround jumper with 14 seconds to play. But as he strode tothe line, Alexander took the bait of a boilerplate "You're gonna miss"taunt from Musketeers guard Stanley Burrell. Alexander replied with anexpletive, took longer than normal preparing himself at the line and madeBurrell a prophet. The Mountaineers lost 79--75 in overtime.

While Syracusecoach Jim Boeheim thinks it's a shopworn association left over from the dayswhen Rony Seikaly and Derrick Coleman struggled at the line—the Orange shot 11for 20 in their one-point loss to Indiana in the 1987 NCAA final, and Colemanmissed what could have been a game-clinching one-and-one—we'll continue toregard any Syracuse free throw as an adventure. This season the Orange shot 9for 18 in a loss at the buzzer to Cleveland State, and junior center ArinzeOnuaku, who's shooting just 30.0%, went 10 for 60 during Big East play. Ifthere's any consolation, it's Syracuse's 2--3 zone, which helps account for itsopponents' collectively shooting just 17.0 free throws a game. (One advantageto that is that Orange players stay relatively free of foul trouble.)

Fourth-seededWashington has had its troubles at the line, but it has learned from them. Lastyear the Huskies were the worst foul-shooting team in Division I, at 58.6%.Coach Lorenzo Romar couldn't indulge in any Caliparian rationalization, as histeam finished below .500 and missed the NCAAs. A big culprit was 6'7",260-pound center Jon Brockman, who beat a path to the line with his brutishstyle but sank only 51.9% once he got there. The main reason he's up to64.9%—and the Pac-10 regular-season champs have soared to 69.9% as a team—isbecause of a drill introduced by assistant coach Jim Shaw. At the end ofpractice 13 Huskies gather around the key, alternating between two-shot foulsand one-and-ones, squeezing off their shots in turn until they combine toconvert 19 of 26 one-and-ones or 20 of 26 two-shot opportunities (up fromtargets of 17 and 18 back in October). If the group fails to reach its goal,everyone starts over. At first the Huskies took up to 45 minutes to completethe exercise; now they finish in 10 minutes, max. It's critical that the drillnot be introduced in January or February as a quick fix. "It's like anantibiotic you take," Romar says. "It builds up mental toughness overtime. The numbers speak for themselves."

This seasonMemphis has abandoned visualization in favor of what Calipari calls "volumeshooting"—100 foul shots per player per practice, every one charted."When a kid goes 1 for 5 [in a game]," he says, "I'll say to theteam, 'O.K., he's taken 3,500 free throws and made 2,900—how do you go 1 for 5?It's all mental. You're thinking too much. That's the only reason you'remissing.'" This season the Tigers have sunk 82% in practice and, despitegoing a fate-tempting 11 for 25 in a one-point defeat of Tulsa in January,upped their in-game percentage to 69.3%, an improvement of 7.9 percentagepoints.

Oh, and did wemention that tournament-time free throws are confounding? We'll always keep inmind the counterintuitive historical examples of a freshman hero and a seniorgoat.

WHEN COACH GuyLewis summoned him off the Houston bench late in the 1982 Midwest Regionalfinal against Boston College, Reid Gettys reacted like the freshman he was."I was panicked," he says. "I had the hardest time finding the guyat the table to check in."

But a calm set inafter the Eagles promptly fouled Gettys to send him to the line. He foundhimself transported to his driveway in Houston, lining up one of the tens ofthousands of free throws he had taken over the years, with his dad, Marshall,faithfully rebounding. He made his first two, whereupon he said to himself,"O.K., if they're gonna foul, I'm gonna knock them down."

Employing what hecalls a "really dorky-looking" style, with his feet set wide and kneessnapping together as he fell forward over the line, Gettys made a couple moreon his next trip. Though the Cougars featured the nucleus of the group thatwould be christened Phi Slamma Jamma the following season, talents like ClydeDrexler and Michael Young were erratic at the line. So Gettys found himselfsurveying the alternatives—"Do we wanna take our chances with me at theline, or one of these knuckleheads?"—and becoming more confident.

He wound upsinking all 10 that he took that afternoon to send the Cougars to the FinalFour. Gettys now does color commentary on Big 12 Network telecasts and adds,"I've said 'Foul the freshman' maybe a hundred times on the air. Thescared-looking freshman who just checked in to the game—that's exactly who youfoul."

The player youdon't foul, conversely, is the senior who's 28 for 28 on the season—a playerlike Terry Howard, a guard on the Louisville team that reached the 1975semifinal game. Even after UCLA coach John Wooden yelled at his players not tofoul him, the Bruins sent Howard to the line for a one-and-one with 20 secondsto play in overtime and the Cardinals up by a point. With the three-point shotstill a dozen years from being adopted, everyone, himself included, assumedthat Howard would put the game away. "Free throws were what I didbest," he recalls. "I was where I should be. I still haven't watched [areplay of] the game, but people tell me that it looked like it was going in,spun around, then popped back out."

UCLA got therebound, and with two seconds left Richard Washington twisted in a jumper fromthe baseline. In those days the semifinal losers played a consolation game, andat practice the next day Howard sank 87 in a row. Some consolation.

That seasonHoward's coach, Denny Crum, required every Cardinal to make 10 straight freethrows before he could leave practice, a target that Howard could hit without asecond thought. Today Crum's successor, Rick Pitino, requires Louisville'sguards and small forwards to sink 12 in a row (big men need only make six)—andhis Cards (64.6% shooters from the line) are demonstrably worse than Crum's '75team (75.2%). But, then, to go down the 15-foot rabbit hole is to enter a worldof paradox, where nuggets of received wisdom turn out to have a crack or threeupon closer examination. Consider:

Foul the freshman.Maybe—but not just any freshman, as the case of Gettys demonstrates. True, yourlikelihood of sinking a free throw increases as you ascend from class toclass—this season, freshmen made 65.6%, sophomores 68.4%, juniors 69.9% andseniors 70.8%, according to College Basketball Prospectus co-author KenPomeroy, who contributed statistical analysis to this report—but there aresure-shooting first-year players like Oklahoma's Willie Warren (78.0%) andButler'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 regulationor overtime will make 72.2%, versus 71.0% immediately after a timeout. In otherwords, barely one of every 100 timeouts called to unnerve a shooter correlateswith a missed free throw. Coaches, Pomeroy suggests, might want to spend theirtimeouts more wisely.

The betterfree-throw-shooting team has a decisive advantage in a close game. Notnecessarily. Over the past six seasons, on those occasions when they've facedoff, the 50 best free-throw-shooting teams in the nation have beaten the 50worst in games decided by three points or fewer only 50.6% of the time. Andthis 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 untoitself.

There's anobsessive Australian-Lithuanian émigré who thinks that's an unconscionablestate of affairs. He believes that, if you lose by X, and you missed X+1 ormore free throws, there are precisely X+1 reasons you lost. Moreover, you cando something about it, just as he did—and if you don't, it's your own damnfault.

IN THE space of asecond Eddie Palubinskas faced a choice: head for the icy river or take hischances 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 atLSU, Palubinskas felt his car spin out on a patch of black ice. He chose thebridge abutment. The crash essentially shattered the right side of his body,leaving his shooting arm with a compound fracture.

Palubinskas hadbeen a superb free throw shooter in college: 87.5% at LSU in the '70s. Butduring rehab he became obsessed with closing what he calls "the imperfectgap," those seven or eight percentage points between his personal best andperfection. First in his hospital bed, then in a wheelchair stationed beneaththe basket, and finally back at the line, he fiddled with such variables as thespread of his fingers on the ball, the orientation of the grain and thealignment of his elbow. He decided that the likeliest "culprit" in anymissed free throw is lateral movement of joints or muscles that leads to adeviation from a straight line.

Palubinskasessentially rebuilt his mechanics from scratch, and for the quarter centurysince—whether horsing around in his driveway in Greenwell Springs, La., orplaying in his men's league—he has made 99 of every 100 he takes. "The ballresponds to one message, and that's the physical force given it," saysPalubinskas. "The ball doesn't care about psychology. Once you master themechanics, there is no choking. The game is almost 120 years old, and we'restill operating at a level of mediocrity."

Palubinskasbelieves that foul shooting would improve if TV commentators pointed out when aplayer moves the gun barrel at the end of a shot. ("See, Jim, lateralmovement of the elbow!") Instead it has remained stuck around 68% for ahalf century. "If you make 18 of 18 and lose by one, that's a legitimateloss, but others are illegitimate," he says. "They say defense winsgames, but how do you defend a free throw? If you lose by two and miss six freethrows, that's the Number 1 statistic you should attack."

Among squanderedNCAA 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) andKansas in 2003 (missed 18, lost by three) all failed the Eddie P. Test. That2003 Jayhawks loss was particularly egregious; they trailed Syracuse by 11 atthe break and, given multiple chances to catch up, bricked 13 of 17 free throwsin the second half.

Statistics tell usthat foul shooters improve by 5-to-7 percentage points per level as theyadvance from high school through college to the pros. Palubinskas proposes thata player at any level simply accelerate his date with destiny by getting thecoaching, and putting in the work as soon as possible after puberty, when mostplayers are strong enough to reach the hoop with replicable, adult form. Yet tohear him tell it, college coaches are too busy recruiting, addressing RotaryClubs or screaming at their guys to "Rebound!" to do the teaching thatwould transform a 66% freshman ahead of schedule. Former Florida star JoakimNoah offers an example of how individual and team improvement can go hand inhand: A year after shooting 57.7% as a freshman, Noah improved to 73.3% as theGators won the first of back-to-back NCAA titles in 2006. Florida coach BillyDonovan has credited the very thing that Palubinskas pines for: "relentlesscommitment."

That phrase isboth companion and rejoinder to Memphis's epitaph of a season ago. "We'llmake 'em when it counts" may be a great signal to send to your guys. It mayserve as a brave public front. But between now and April 6, to paraphrase CoachCal, we'll count 'em when they're made.

Don't Foul 'Em

Deadeyes at theline who are in the field

[This articlecontains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

PLAYER, SCHOOLGFTMFTAFT%
Darren Collison, UCLA3210411491.2
Greivis Vasquez, Maryland319911288.3
Lee Cummard, BYU3111613486.6
Jerome Randle, California3213916186.3
Lawrence Westbrook, Minnesota309310886.1
Tyrese Rice, Boston College3116719486.1
Manny Harris, Michigan3216419185.9
Jimmer Fredette, BYU3110312085.8
Josh Carter, Texas A&M3210211985.7
Tyler Hansbrough, N. Carolina2618621984.9

MINIMUM: 100ATTEMPTS

Foul 'Em

Players to goafter in a close game

[This articlecontains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

PLAYER, SCHOOLGFTMFTAFT%
Arinze Onuaku, Syracuse333612030.0
Delvon Roe, Michigan State304410044.0
Rob Robinson, Robert Morris315611150.5
Khalil Hartwell, Chattanooga348316450.6
Kevin Thompson, Morgan State325810555.2
Larry Sanders, VCU336812355.3
Blake Griffin, Oklahoma3116928659.1
C.J. Anderson, Xavier319616060.0
Alex Franklin, Siena3312620661.2
Derrick Mercer, American306510661.3

MINIMUM: 100ATTEMPTS
STATS THROUGH MARCH 12

Rock-Solid

The best teamsfrom the line in the field

[This articlecontains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

SCHOOLGFTMFTAFT%
Utah3150163978.4
Maryland3140853376.6
North Carolina3058877176.3
Michigan3238851375.6
California3246461475.6
Oklahoma State3257276774.6
Villanova3258178474.1
Arizona State3144159674.0
Utah State3247464273.8
North Dakota State3252370973.8

Shaky Shots

Teams that are introuble in close games

[This articlecontains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

SCHOOLGFTMFTAFT%
Alabama State2934854364.1
Syracuse3351980864.2
Louisville3138659864.6
Morgan State3238860164.6
Stephen F. Austin2932149764.6
Dayton3245971064.7
American3031147765.2
Chattanooga3460692565.5
Siena3348473166.2
Binghamton3042864566.4

STATS THROUGHMARCH 12

Overbearing

Key players mostlikely to get opponents in foul trouble

[This articlecontains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

PLAYER, SCHOOLFOULS DRAWN*
Blake Griffin, Oklahoma8.1Sooners get lots of extra minutes againstsecond-stringers; 28 defenders have fouled out, most against any Top 10team.
Tyler Hansbrough, N. Carolina7.7Has shot more free throws than any college playerever; only three times in 134 games has he failed to get to the line.
Matt Howard, Butler7.4Savvy 6'8" sophomore leads Bulldogs in scoring andrebounding and knocks down 77.3% from the line.
James Harden, Arizona State6.8A 76.0% free throw shooter, he went 16 for 21 from thestripe in a one-point win against BYU.
Jeff Teague, Wake Forest6.5His coming-out season has been helped by his abilityto draw fouls; last season he picked up 3.8 ppg at the line; this year it's5.9.

*PER 40MINUTES

Overanxious

Key players whosefoul trouble could hurt their teams

[This articlecontains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

PLAYER, SCHOOLFOULS COMMITTED*
Austin Daye, Gonzaga4.2Had 10 games with at least four fouls, including oneDQ—which kept him out of overtime in a loss to UConn.
Shawn Taggart, Memphis4.2Had nine games with at least four fouls, including oneDQ; was in foul trouble in close calls against Tennessee and UTEP.
DeJuan Blair, Pittsburgh3.9Panthers were 3--3 in games in which he had four ormore fouls (including two DQs), 25--0 in games with three or fewer.
Jon Brockman, Washington3.9DQ'd in two of Huskies' four losses, at UCLA and atArizona, and had 12 games total with at least four fouls.
Cole Aldrich, Kansas3.6Had seven games with at least four fouls but managedthem well; only twice did he play less than 20 minutes in a game.

*PER 40 MINUTES
SOURCE: KEN POMEROY. STATS THROUGH MARCH 13

"When a kid goes 1 for 5, I'll say to the team,'IT'S ALL MENTAL,'" says Calipari. "'You're thinking toomuch.'"
"It's like an ANTIBIOTIC," says Romar ofWashington's free throw drill. "It builds up mental toughness overtime."

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PHOTOPhotograph by Greg NelsonEVE OF DISTRACTION Fanatics go to mind-boggling lengths to disturb opposing shooters at the line, as Damion James (5) of Texas found out at Oklahoma.PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGHPHOTOJOHN BIEVER HOTHOUSERose (23) wilted in crunch time, making only one of two with 10.8 seconds leftin the title game, leaving the door open for Kansas' miraclecomeback.PHOTOJOHN BIEVER[See caption above]PHOTOLOUIS LOPEZ/CAL SPORT MEDIA (BROCKMAN)HACK WORK Brockman (40) is still an iffy foul shooter at 64.9%, but he has improved from just 51.9% last year, and the Huskies' turnaround helped them win the Pac-10.PHOTOKEVIN P. CASEY/AP (ROMAR)PHOTODUSTIN SNIPES/ICON SMIPHOTOGERRY BROOME/APPHOTOJAMES LANG/US PRESSWIRE