In the second half against Villanova, as the Longhorns attempted to gain and eventually hold the lead against the Wildcats, they missed 10 of their first 14 free throw attempts, including AJ Abrams, normally the only good free throw shooter of the bunch, splitting free throws on each of his first three two-shot trips to the line. When he made both free throws with 23 seconds left in the game, Abrams became the first Longhorn foul shooter to make both of his free throws during a trip to the line, ending an 0 for 10 streak that included Gary Johnson and Damion James missing both attempts once apiece. For James, the excuse might be that it was late in the game, which can have a player feeling cold at the line, but it was Johnson's third trip to the line, leaving no excuse for him.
Bricklayer of the Game Awards
Besides rampant mediocrity for most players most games, which results in splitting two free throws the great majority of the time (eight out 11 trips against the Wildcats), most games are punctuated by one player having an absolute nightmare at the line. The revolving door let Gary Johnson through against 'Nova, as seen by his 1-5 performance. Against UCLA, it was Clint Chapman, drawing a blank on four attempts. Oregon? That would be Justin Mason, clanging four of his six tries. That one point loss to Notre Dame? Mase, the culprit again, making one of four. How about a Chappy/Mase brick party? Four of eleven against Tulane. In Chappy's defense, that was the game that he made his only free throw of the season. He's 0 for the rest of 08-09.
And now, the first ever Ultimate Bricklayer Award
Coming to the end of the line in the backwards review of the season, we find Varez Ward waiting to claim the title of absolute worst performance amongst the veritable brickyard of the season. Treating Longhorn fans to their viewing of his college career, the Montgomery, Alabama product missed all six of his attempts. Congratulations, Varez. There was some stiff competition, but you win the initial Bricklayer Award of the season (more to come, folks! Stay tuned).
Sunshine Pumping Time
For those who enjoy a little sunshine pumped into their nether regions, I'll oblige. But only because you ask. Oh look. There are the Longhorns hitting 18 of 24 against Rice, one of two 70%+ performances on the year! Go team! That game included everyone shooting 50% or better. The other good performance was against St. Joe's , when James, Abrams, Johnson, and Wangmene combined to go 10-11. Wow, that's legitimately good! Yay, 'Horns!
Getting Alexis Wangmene back from injury may help. Although his sample size is extremely small (2-2), when combining how pure his strokes looked on those free throws to his stroke around the basket and now extended out to 15-18 feet, Wingman looks like he has the most potential of all the big men to be a solid foul shooter, with Gary Johnson slightly behind.
Enough of that, how about some history?
Memphis was famously bad from the line last season, converting 61%, with only Derrick Rose and Chris Douglas-Roberts converting over 70%. John Calipari equally famously said that he wasn't worried about his team's free throw shooting, but lo and behold, it cost Memphis a championship when Derrick Rose missed free throws at the end of the game. Given the choice between taking back his comments downplaying the importance of free throws and a national championship trophy, Coach Cal would have to take back his comments, right?
Looking at the 16 squads that have comprised the last four Final Fours, the horrific foul shooting of Memphis is a relative anomaly. Only UCLA in 2005-06 and George Mason in 2005-2006 were close at 66%, respectively. Eleven of the 16 teams shot 70% or better, with Michigan State's 2004-05 team leading the way at 77%, followed by last year's UNC team at 75%, with the average sitting at 71%. The 2006-2007 Florida group was the only one to win a national championship shooting less than 72%, at 69%. It's a relatively small sample size, but I think the results are reasonably conclusive: Teams shooting well less than 70% struggle to get to the Final Four, with any team overcoming their poor free throw shooting being a relative anamoly.
The importance of the core
There's rightfully a great deal of discussion among Longhorn fans right now about whether it will cost Texas in March. Most if it along the lines of speculating how deep hte team can get in the tournament before free throw shooting costs a game. I certainlyl agree with that position. The team sits at 58% this year, worse than Memphis and worse even than the worst free throw shooting team in 2007-08, West Virginia, which managed only 59%. It will remain a struggle this year at the line--the key is for the high volume ball handlers (Abrams and Mason) and the players who draw a high volume of fouls (James and Johnson) to hit at a higher clip than they have been. It's unrealistic to suddenly expect a team that shoots poorly from the line to all start hitting at an 80% clip. Instead, it's about a core group of players, well, stepping up to the line and delivering that can save a deep tournament run.
That core group of four includes the two players most likely to handle the ball at the end of games (Abrams when the other team is in fouling mode) and the guys who will get to the line the most. In fact, Abrams, James, and Mason have all taken 27 foul shots on the year, with Johnson one behind at 26. Each needs to perform at a higher level and the team can survive poor foul shooting from the group of Dexter Pittman, Varez Ward, and Clint Chapman.
For Abrams, that means deciding if he is the 87-90% shooter he was in his first two years, or the 80% shooter he has been the last two years.The heavy minutes may hurt Abrams a bit because he runs so much and now actually exerts energy defensively, but he's in such good shape and has such a pure stroke the Longhorns need clutch shooting from Abrams at the end of games, when Rick Barnes is likelyto let him hunt shots. With AJ's stroke, there's no excuse for him not to shoot 85% or better.
For James, it means improving into at least the high 60% range (he's at 63% right now) after regressing last year (57%) from his freshman campaign (59%). James is a junior now and he's too important to this team and has too good of a touch to shoot so poorly. Last year, it was inconsisteny that plagued him, alternating between games of shooting well (three games at 4-6, one 4-4, one 6-8) and absymal performances (1-8, 2-7, 3-7, 4-8). James missed both of his free throws against Villanova, but has avoided any other poor performances. Maintaining consistency is the expectation for James, since the poor trajectory on his shot will always limit him at the line in a way that it doesn't from the field because of his superior elevation.
Gary Johnson has the stroke to hit in the 70-75 range. He leaves his elbow out a little more than desired, but not enough to disrupt the purity of his release. Johnson went a combined 10-11 in Maui, so his performance against Villanova was the outlier for the season, still leaving him nearly 10 percentage points higher than his average last season (65% to 57%). It looks like he has worked hard on both his stroke in the offseason, evidenced in the improvement in his foul shooting and mid-range jump shot, work that has led to the first three attempts from long range of his career, all three of which he has missed. Prediction: Johnson will not be a liability at the line this season, instead contributing consistently, while becoming the most high volume foul shooter on the team.
Justin Mason is the final number of the core and the worst foul shooter of the four, at 44% for the year, which is obvoiusly atrocious for a guard, not to mention the primary ball handler. Rick Barnes has to get on Mase about being aggressive as much as anyone on the team not named Connor Atchley and the Longhorns are at their best when Mason is using his quickness off the dribble to get into the lane and create for himself and his teammates. To put it succinctly, Mason is the best combination of making plays for himself and teammates, with an affinity for big moments. That affinity hasn't extended to the foul line this season, as he is 20 points beneath last season's accpetable (for him) 66% performance.
Mason found himself on the other end of the spectrum from Gary Johnson's suberb performance from the foul line in Maui, hitting a measly three of 10. For the Longhorns to succeed in March, Mason must remain aggressive attacking the basket and hit between his career averages of 58% (freshman year) and 66% (sophomore year). The limiting factor with Mason's free throw shooting lies with his follow through, or more precisely, the lack thereof. He doesn't break his wrist when shooting, almost like Shaq shooting free throws, failing to "put his hand in the cookie jar," as the saying goes. Hence, shots with little touch and too much arc, thrown up their more with a prayer than with confidence.
The Final Word
Obviously, the foul shooting of the team will remain under scruitiny for the rest of the season, as concerns of regression will accompany any on the court improvements. Varez Ward and Clint Chapman have shot extremely poorly from the line and should improve as the season continues, but the fate of the team will not rest on them. Instead, as mentioned above, the core four of James, Johnson, Abrams, and Mason will have find some consistency in the 70% range (Johnson and James) or return to the same level of their career best performances (Abrams and Mason). There are no miracle cures, but simple improvements by or the return to form of the team's most important players will keep foul shooting from becoming the fatal flaw of the 2008-09 Longhorn basketball team.