Saunders: Why can't college players hit a free throw anymore?

bsaunders@newsobserver.comMarch 12, 2014 

Like most dudes and many dudettes in the Triangle at this time of year, my thoughts have been consumed recently with three things:

• What are Putin’s plans in Crimea?

• Will Ellen be named permanent host of the Oscars?

• Why can’t college basketball players hit their danged free throws – and how badly will the inability to consistently do so hurt the Tar Heels on Friday and beyond?

Don’t look at me like that; you’re probably wondering the same thing about your favorite team, too.

Regardless of for whom you’re rooting, can we agree that too many of today’s college basketball players are lousy when they step to the free throw line? (Nobody who has ever played the game would ever call it the “charity stripe.”)

What keeps me awake

Have you ever marveled at how a player can calmly stroke a 22-foot jumper while being hit in the mouth with 30,000 fans yelling at him, but then go to the free throw line and clank uncontested shot after uncontested shot?

Wondering that – and how Marvin Gaye only won one Grammy for vocals and John Legend has eight – keeps me awake many nights.

It once seemed that players flopping on the court, trying to induce an offensive foul call from the ref, would destroy interest in college basketball, especially when it seems that one particular area school awards scholarships based on a player’s ability to fall whenever breathed upon.

Now, missed free throws have almost made the game unwatchable – especially when the player who misses seemingly has to give a high-five to every freakin’ teammate and person in the gym after each shot. There is a college player – you can look this up on YouTube if you think I’m jiving – who “slapped palms” with invisible teammates after shooting a technical free throw and none of his Kansas State teammates was near.

‘Poor mechanics’

Harvey Heartley, who coached for 35 years, including 25 at St. Augustine’s, blamed “poor mechanics” for the awful free throw shooting. “I was always a shooter and could teach my players to shoot,” he said. Heartley then expounded on “fingertip control” and “90-degree angles” and technique – all things we were taught in middle school, but which escape today’s players.

Like everything else that’s wrong with basketball, I was fixing to blame the Amateur Athletic Union – the tennis-shoe-company-sponsored run-and-gun summer leagues that teach hoopsters, if they teach them anything, that soaring and slamming the ball through the basket with panache is all that matters.

Sure, AAU is responsible for the diminution in players’ ability to hit free throws. To a lesser extent, so is ESPN: You don’t make the highlight reel by hitting free throws, Jack, so why practice that?

Neither of those is the real culprit, though. While driving from school to school in Durham on Sunday, looking for a place to take my jumpshot out of mothballs in private, I discovered why kids can no longer shoot free throws through the basket: They’re too short.

Not the players, silly. The rims. At the handful of elementary schools that even had basketball courts, the baskets had been lowered from the regulation 10 feet to about 8 feet – presumably to make it easier for young players to score and thus feel good about themselves. The same revolting development can be seen in innumerable backyards across the Triangle, as well.

Hmmph. Heaven forbid that a kid would have to strain to make the ball reach the basket. Being able to dunk – and many were doing that Sunday – or nail endless free throws and jumpers with a lowered basket may make them feel good, but it also deprives them of the sense of real accomplishment they’ll earn when they can shoot in a regulation basket.

Besides, how good are they going to feel when they go to the free throw line with an NCAA Tournament bid on the line, the coach says, “Relax, just act like you’re shooting in the basket in your backyard” and they promptly toss up an airball that misses by – yep, you guessed it – 2 feet?

Player (returning to the bench): “But coach ...”

To prove my contention that free throw shooting has devolved to a lamentable level for whatever reason, I had my ace researcher, Dr. Hakeem “The Dream” Goldstein, look up free throw percentages of the Triangle’s Big Three ACC teams through the years. All are shooting a lower percentage this year than they were 10 years ago.

In 2003-2004, Duke was shooting 74 percent as a team. It is shooting 72 percent this season. UNC in 2004 shot 68 percent compared with 62 this season – and that’s with its main free thrower shooting 90 percent and skewing the curve. N.C. State shot 80 percent in 2004 and 65 percent this season. Clang.

Some of those differences may seem minute, but not when you consider that it only takes one miss or make to win a game. In 1994, UNC shot 66 percent, but won 28 games by an average margin of 13 points, so missed free throws were not usually fatal.

None of the Big Three – who really cares about those carpetbagging, interloping newcomers? – is good enough this season to withstand the constant clang and clank of missed free throws that will turn March Madness into March sadness.

Saunders: 919-836-2811 or

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