How College Hoopsters Learned to Love the Free Throw
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because games are won and lost at the line.
By Ray Glier and Sean Culligan
The free-throw line is usually the safest spot on the floor in a basketball game, but not on April 7, 2008, in the NCAA championship game. The Memphis Tigers couldn’t breathe at the foul line as a howling crowd of 43,257 in the Alamodome in San Antonio made the pressure suffocating. Chris Douglas-Roberts clanged a free throw off the rim with 75 seconds to play, then missed two more free throws with 16 seconds left. After another miss by future NBA star Derrick Rose, Kansas’ Mario Chalmers nailed a 3-pointer to force overtime and go on to claim the title. Memphis’ free-throw calamity still haunts the city.
The game was fun a decade ago — acrobats attacking the rim and dunking — but free-throw shooting was erratic, with athletes making the shot around 60 percent of the time across the board. Over and over there were meltdowns at the line.
But now, frustrated fans and coaches are hearing a satisfying swish much more often. College teams have been waking up to the possibility of the free throw — that unimpeded shot taken 15 feet from the rim.
For the third straight season, free-throw shooting in Division I is above 70 percent, a longer streak than the sport has ever seen.
In the 2016–17 season, free-throw shooting in Division I went over 70 percent for the first time (70.38) since statistics were first kept in 1948. Then another all-time mark was set during the 2017-18 season (71.29). Heading into the 2019 NCAA Tournament, the shooting percentage in Division I was 70.45.
“College basketball has evolved into a 3-point shooting game, there are more shooters on the floor, so you have better shooters and they are making more free throws,” says North Dakota State forward Rocky Kreuser, who makes more than 80 percent of his free-throw attempts. His team, the Bison, ranked ninth nationally, hitting 77 percent of its free throws going into March Madness. “It’s more of a shooting-style game now,” Kreuser says.
The college players had no choice but to get better. In today’s game, a 10-point lead can be wiped away in seconds due to the number of 3-point shooters on the floor — especially if the leading team is shooting bricks at the line. Coaches have seen enough disappearing leads to bear down on coaching the free throw.
The University of Mississippi Rebels have to make 10 free throws in a row before they can leave the floor at the end of practice. Ole Miss ranked third in the nation in free-throw shooting (just below 80 percent) coming into this March Madness. “We’ve had some stay late trying to make 10,” says assistant coach Win Case. He smiles wide and adds, “No, not so late that we are bringing in breakfast.”
[Kids] start playing at an early age and they work on their skills. One of those skills is being able to shoot free throws.
Ole Miss guard Blake Hinson
Case says the Rebels are “gym rats” who practice so much on their own they have to be chased out of the gym. He has been in the game 25 years, and Case has seen players evolve into working on their all-around game, not just acrobatic plays around the rim. “We recruit that well-rounded player, and one of the skills is being able to shoot free throws,” Case says. “So many games come down to who makes their free throws at the end.”
Ole Miss forward Bruce Stevens made 87 percent of his free throws (39 of 45) for the year. His routine includes not rushing himself, taking a deep breath, focusing on the rim and blocking out everything but the net. “I wish I could shoot more of them,” Stevens says.
Ole Miss guard Blake Hinson says the climb in free-throw shooting is more than pressure from coaches on the players to make shots. “Basketball is a trend. It is a very cool thing to do,” Hinson says. “Guys like LeBron and Steph Curry are making it trendy. Kids are pushing toward basketball. They start playing at an early age, and they work on their skills. One of those skills is being able to shoot free throws.”
When Hinson is at the free-throw line, he looks into the stands to see how many people are cheering for him and that makes him relax. But what if he is on the free-throw line at rival Mississippi State?
“I look at my teammates, and I look at their eyes,” he says. “If I see they have confidence in me, I have confidence in me. Free-throw shooting is confidence.”