Few situations in sports are as anxiety-provoking, unnerving and intimidating as the basketball free throw.
On the surface, it’s hardly frightening. It’s an unguarded 15-foot shot, an unobstructed attempt to score in a sport where getting that opportunity in open play is a rare occurrence. It’s as simple as can be.
But basketball is a fast-paced game by nature. Foul shots pause that speediness and instantly thrust a player, ready or not, into the spotlight. Add in external factors — screaming fans, nervousness, frustration, etc., to name a few — and one slip of the hand, one blip in the routine or one distraction can throw the shooter out of whack.
With all eyes in the arena suddenly on the taker, the free throw becomes the loneliest play in basketball. It’s a skill to be efficient from the foul line, and it doesn’t come easy.
So, even as Missouri men’s basketball trudges through its current three-game losing streak, its new place in the NCAA Division I record book for the most consecutive free throws made — set over the course of the Tigers’ defeats at Alabama and against Texas A&M — is an outstanding and remarkable achievement in keeping cool, calm and collected.
Coach Cuonzo Martin and crew probably would’ve traded NCAA immortality for a couple of more wins. Still, Martin understood that what was done Saturday and Tuesday was historic.
“There’s pain in a journey you go through, but that was the pleasure of it,” Martin said. “Those guys did something that will go down in history, but all them guys will say they wanted to win the game more than anything. But we’ve got to keep plugging along.”
Missouri’s record streak of 54 consecutive made free throws ended with forward Mitchell Smith missing a chance to tie the game against the Aggies at 63 with 29.5 seconds remaining, breaking the previous record of 50 set by a Chris Paul-led Wake Forest in 2004-05. Ironically, the Demon Deacons’ streak also ended late in a close game, as Taron Downey missed a chance to break a 76-76 tie with four seconds left in regulation against Florida State on Jan. 18, 2005.
Nine different players contributed to the Tigers’ streak, with Dru Smith (16 for 16) carrying the heaviest bulk of the load. Following in order were Mitchell Smith (9 for 9), Xavier Pinson (9 for 9), Torrence Watson (7 for 7), Mark Smith (4 for 4), Reed Nikko (4 for 4), Tray Jackson (2 for 2), Javon Pickett (2 for 2) and Kobe Brown (1 for 1). The 54 straight makes improved Missouri’s cumulative season free throw percentage to 77.4%, which ranks 16th in the country.
Texas A&M coach Buzz Williams said postgame that he thought Missouri led the country in free throw percentage, along with his catch that Mitchell Smith hadn’t missed a free throw all season entering Tuesday. He’s slightly off — the Tigers are ninth nationally since New Year’s Day — but shooting 82% and being the best foul-shooting team in the Southeastern Conference since the start of the year is nothing to downplay.
“I was watching the Alabama game, and I kind of restrict my social media usage during the season. I did not know when I was watching the game that they were 31 for 31,” Williams said. “So you know, I’m studying the game and I’m like, ‘They make a lot of free throws.’ So I started keeping up with it. In our game charts when I’m filling out the personnel stuff and I’m looking at the cumulative stats, I don’t think (Smith) has missed a free throw all year, right?”
But what exactly goes into an unprecedented streak of consecutive free throws?
Per experts and sports scientists, it’s more about what you’re thinking rather than how you’re shooting. In a study published in the Journal of Clinical Sports Psychology in 2009, scientists Amy Gooding and Frank L. Gardner concluded from analyzing 17 Division I men’s basketball players’ free throw routines and percentages from practice and games that a player’s mindfulness matters at the foul line.
They found that in the isolated, more controlled confines of the practice gym, the players in the study had an average free throw percentage of 80.7%. In games, where externals like crowd noise and fatigue could play more of a factor, those same players’ percentages dropped to an average of 67.8%.
Dr. Hal Wissel, a former NCAA head coach and NBA assistant coach who retired in 2007 after a 43-year career in coaching, has published two books and conducted basketball minicamps worldwide as a renowned specialist in shooting the ball. Speaking to the Missourian over the phone Wednesday, he remarked that the key to quality free throw shooting lies mostly within getting into a correct mindset.
“It’s a combination of mental and mechanical,” said Wissel, who most recently worked with the NBA’s Golden State Warriors as an assistant for player development in 2007. “Number one, you have to have confidence. And how do you get confidence? It starts in practice. But as you work on it in practice, then you’ve got to be successful in games. As far as confidence is concerned, you want to always be positive. Over 3½ balls fit in the rim, most people don’t realize that.”
Usually, hitting free throws at a consistent rate means winning basketball. In a separate study by the International Journal of Performance Analysis of Sport that analyzed the performance factors that decide the results of basketball games, a team of scientists found that 3-pointers, made free throws and defensive rebounds most strongly correlated with winning teams in a study of 54 different Euroleague games in 2007.
As for Missouri in SEC play, being tops in free throw percentage has not correlated with wins.
The Tigers are currently 1-5 in the conference and hovered just two spots above last place in the standings before Wednesday’s slate of league games. For whatever reason, Missouri’s confidence and composure from 15 feet hasn’t spread to its half court offense: per KenPom, in SEC games only, the Tigers are 11th in the league (out of 14 teams) in offensive efficiency, effective field goal percentage and offensive turnover percentage.
Martin remains hopeful that the shots from the field will eventually sink like shots from the charity stripe have. But with the Tigers roughly halfway through their season and sitting at a mediocre 30.7% from 3-point range (279th nationally), time’s running out for that to happen.
“You see ‘em fall in practice. We shoot tough shots in practice, deep shots in practice, all kinds of spreading off screens ... all kinds of shots,” Martin said. “I think, again, as we continue to drive the ball, the 3-point shot will fall because as you get to the rim, it loosens up most defenses.”