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The Problem With ‘Free’ Throws

TCU Basketball has historically struggled from the charity stripe. Is there something they should be doing differently?

TCU Basketball vs Wofford
TCU Basketball vs Wofford
Melissa Triebwasser

It’s supposed to be the easiest shot in basketball - an unguarded 15’ set shot with nearly all the time in the world to take. For fans, and people who have never taken a free throw under pressure, it’s easy to question why people playing at the highest levels of the sport struggle so much with what should be such a simple shot. But there is so much more that goes into draining that single point bucket than just the physical action.

The Frogs are shooting a putrid 66.7% from the line through the first ten games of the season, including their abysmal effort against Wofford, where they went 24-41 for the game and just 9-20 in the first half. For comparison’s sake, Notre Dame leads the country in free throw percentage at a sterling 86.4%, while the national average tends to hover right around 68-70%, but has not eclipsed that magic number in more than 50 years. The Frogs have not hit that magical 70% mark since the 2013-2014 season, and this year their struggles seem even more magnified this year by the fact that they are a guard heavy team that shoots a very respectable 47% from the field, which puts them in the top 60 of the country.

After the game against the Terriers, a frustrated Jamie Dixon harped on the free throw issues, before he was even prodded, by saying that missing that many from the stripe was equivalent to a turnover and negated any good work done on the offensive end for that series. And he’s not wrong - missed free throws lead to defensive rebounds that often lead to a numbers advantage on the other end or a fast break opportunity.

Most of you know that I have a long history with basketball, both as a player and a coach, so I am very familiar with the great free throw debate. As a coach, I have had teams that were money at the line - generally guard heavy groups with mental toughness and lots of experience - and teams that made the Frogs look like the best around in comparison. It’s always frustrating to me - as a teammate, as a fan, and as a coach - to see a missed free throw, especially the front end of a one and one, but I also know how difficult that shot actually is. Whether it’s in an NBA playoff game, a preseason college matchup, a high school contest, or an alumni game, there’s no worse feeling than standing at the line, with every eye on you, waiting for you to fail.

The mental aspect of shooting free throws is certainly a key component, so much so that coaches bring in mind coaches and spend practice time doing visualization techniques and even hypnosis. I’ve had players shoot one handed, with their eyes closed, or under handed, just hoping to find the magic potion that erases their doubt. Players develop free throw routines - a number of dribbles, a hand motion, a prayer, etc - anything to help them settle their nerves and get into a rhythm. And therein lies the rub - so much of game shooting lies in rhythm, while a free throw is the only shot a player takes from a complete standstill. So how do you help your players develop that rhythm in practice?

There are many schools of thought to this quandary, and as a coach, I have pretty much tried them all. Pressure free throws at the end of practice, where the entire team lines up for a one and one, with a miss on the front end leading to a liner for everyone, while going one for two is a simple down and back and a two for two grants a respite. Some coaches prefer the surprise attack, halting practice mid-drill and putting a player, or several, on the line. Some scrimmage out of free throw situations, starting each set out of a one and one. But more and more, as the practice time shrinks for college players, coaches spend less and less time working on that skill during the limited gym time they are given. And for the younger players, who grow up in an AAU environment where tournament games are scheduled on top of each other in such a way that there isn’t time for delays, leading to referees calling minimal fouls, it’s not the priority it once was when they are putting time in outside of practice. There is very little glory in a made free throw, though there can be hell to pay in a miss. Young players much prefer the roar of the crowd off a big dunk or the celebration after a long three swishes through the net. They idolize the Steph Currys and Jimmer Fredettes, not the Rick Barrys and Mark Prices. Shaquille O’Neal, one of the greatest players of all time, was also one of the worst free throw shooters in history, but only the fiercest pundits seemed to care.

So what do you do if you’re Jamie Dixon, who has a good team that could see themselves upended by poor foul shooting?

No one has shot more freebies for the Frogs than forward Vladimir Brodziansky, a 6’11 Slovakian who is proving the adage that foreign players are far more successful from the stripe than their American counterparts, hitting 35 of his 46 attempts on the season for a respectable 76%. TCU has six players shooting over 70% on the season, including freshmen guards Desmond Bane and Jaylen Fisher, who are both more than capable at the line. The main concern lies in guard Alex Robinson and forward Kenrich Williams, who have attempted 70 free throws between them and hit on only 37 of them. That’s barely 50%, and it’s not good enough for two of your biggest contributors, and in close games, it will be a tough call for Dixon whether to keep them on the floor or not down the stretch. By his words after the Wofford win, it’s clear he’s aware of the problem and looking for a solution.

So the next time you gnash your teeth and call out to the heavens when your favorite Frog goes one for two at the line, take solace in knowing that:

A. You aren’t the only one.

B. They are working on it.

C. You would be peeing yourself in that situation.