In the middle of Cat Barber’s free-throw routine, right after he dribbles twice but before he bends his knees, he drops his eyes and looks away from the rim.
Where is he looking? Not even the N.C. State junior guard is sure.
“Maybe I’m looking at somebody to let them know, ‘Yeah, it’s going in,’ ” Barber said.
That has certainly been the case more frequently this season for Barber and the Wolfpack (8-3), who host UNC-Greensboro (4-7) on Tuesday (7 p.m., ESPN3).
In N.C. State’s first 11 games, Barber has already taken 116 free throws and made 100, both numbers lead the ACC and rank second in the NCAA.
The combination of Barber’s role in carrying the Wolfpack offense (he leads the team with 22.2 points per game), his speed and the emphasis in officiating in reducing contact by the defense has added up to 10.5 free throws per game for Barber.
No one took more free throws in ACC history than former North Carolina forward Tyler Hansbrough. His single-season best for attempts was 377 in the 2007-08 season. That worked out to an average of 9.6 free throws per game.
Barber’s on pace to break Mel Thompson’s school record of 335 attempts, in 33 games, in the inaugural year of ACC play in 1953-54.
Getting to the line and making them had been two different issues for Barber in his first two seasons at N.C. State.
Barber shot 69.6 percent as a freshman (78 of 112) and 73.3 percent last season (110 of 150). This season, he is making his free throws at an 86.2 percent clip.
“I knew I was a better free-throw shooter than I showed in my first two years,” Barber said.
Barber has nearly been automatic this season from the line. He was 13 of 15 in Saturday’s 73-59 win at Missouri when he finished with a game-high 33 points.
In an 87-79 win over Winthrop on Nov. 27, Barber was 19 of 22 from the foul line and he scored a career-best 37 points.
“I’m just confident,” Barber said of the difference in his free-throw performance this season. “I just wasn’t comfortable or confident before. Now, it’s back to my routine and knowing that it’s going in and not thinking about it.”
N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried said Barber has put in extra work on improving his shot.
“He has worked on his shooting, the last year to year and a half, as much as anybody I’ve ever had,” said Gottfried, who has been a college coach since 1988.
Barber has taken at least 10 free throws in seven of the 11 games this season. He ranks second in the country in both attempts and makes to Howard guard James Daniel.
Indicative of how the games have been officiated this season, of the top nine players in the country in free-throw attempts, eight are guards.
Barber has tried to use the new emphasis to his advantage.
“With my ability to get past people, it’s going to be hard to keep me off the line,” Barber said.
Seeing so many free throws go in has also helped Barber’s confidence with his outside shot. He didn’t make a 3-pointer in the first eight games of the season, missing his first nine attempts.
But he has gone 6 of 14 (42.8 percent) the last three games, including the game-winner at the buzzer against High Point last week and a first-half buzzer-beater against Mizzou.
Barber hopes to make the buzzer-beaters as much apart of his scoring arsenal as his free-throw efficiency.
“If that’s what it takes,” Barber said.
Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio