There’s a funny thing about free throws in the reality that, well, they’re free. To my partial knowledge, it’s the only instance in sports where literally no defense is played. The opposition is forced to simply watch while the shooter stands a mere 15 feet away from the rim and attempts what’s quite favorably arguable as the easiest opportunity for points the sports world has to offer – thus, the name, "free throws."
Sounds simple, huh?
But despite the theoretic simplicity behind it, the art of free throws is one the Texas Longhorns haven’t exactly been Picasso in perfecting, and it didn’t take long for this free throw deficiency to cost the Horns.
Look no further than Shaka Smart’s debut as Texas’ head coach – chaperoned by the commentary of the economically informed Bill Walton – in which the Longhorns fell 77-71 to the freshmen-laden Washington Huskies in China. And while there were numerous aspects of the game that led to Texas starting the Smart era 0-1 (see defensive rebounding/overall effort and hustle), Texas failing to capitalize on 17 of its 48 free throws ultimately became the difference in the game. Sure, Washington missed 16 of its own, but that’s to be expected from a extremely youthful group, as opposed to a Longhorns’ squad stacked with seniors.
The following game, against Texas A&M Corpus Christi, the Horns converted only 13-of-30 in a 67-56 victory that really shouldn’t have been that close. Only days later, Texas fell to Texas A&M in the Bahamas 84-73 after missing 15 more free throws – the third time the Horns did so in each of their first three games. After surprisingly knocking down 30 free ones in a revenge victory over Washington, Texas once again shot horridly from the charity stripe in a loss to Michigan, converting 8-19 (42.1%).
Just like that, Texas owned a 2-3 record after missing 43 free throws in the three losses, which came by a total of 23 points – the difference between 2-3 and 5-0. And although Texas has now won six consecutive games, the horrid free throw narrative remains. Over this period, the Horns’ have knocked down only 56-of-117 free throws (48%), which is a mini-miracle considering the opposition has shot 98-of-128 (78%). But also worth noting over this period, is that the competition, excluding North Carolina and Stanford, has been subpar to say the least – UT Arlington, Samford, UTSA, and Appalachian State.
But this won’t be the case come Big 12 play. Conference action kicks off Saturday, and soon will come the likes a pair of tall tasks against five ranked teams – No. 2 Kansas, No. 3 Oklahoma, No. 11 Iowa State, No. 19 West Virginia, and No. 23 Baylor. And as if Texas’ offensive firepower and necessity to capitalize of free points hasn’t already proved vital in a handful of games, the Longhorns are now tasked with finding a way to keep stride without senior center, Cameron Ridley, who’s been a two-way interior anchor en route to a career season.
This means Texas quite simply can’t shoot below 60 percent from the line, as they have in six contests thus far, and even more so with the sub-50 percent efforts that have held true in four games. This means guards Kerwin Roach Jr., Kendal Yancy, and Demarcus Holland can’t shoot a combined 35-of-61 from the line (57%), just as Prince Ibeh, who’s in line for an increased role in Ridley’s absence, can’t continue to shoot anything near his career free throw efforts of 43%.
The rugged Big 12 portion of the schedule is basically here, and as extreme as it may sound, Texas’ inability to make teams pay for putting them at the free throw line could be the difference between one-too-many close losses and a tournament berth in Smart’s debut season. To put it as plainly as possible, the NCAA Tournament will be a far-fetched hope if the Longhorns continue into Big 12 action shooting at the pace they have thus far:
From the time Big 12 play began last season, up until Texas’ season ended in the NCAA Tournament loss to Butler, the Longhorns were 3-9 in games decided by single digits; a difference small enough for free throws to impact the outcome. Following a similar fate would yet again make Texas a borderline tourney team, at best, and Shaka will now have to lead his guys there without Ridley. To do so, the formula is simple: Don’t let free throws cost you.