My first basketball coach, a wise man who was big on fundamentals, harped on us to take advantage of freebies.
He thought free throws were building blocks to winning.
He emphasized free throws were the only shots in basketball that no one is allowed to guard the shooter. The distance is always the same. The angle is always the same. There is no rush. The pressure varies, but that’s the same for any shot.
It’s routine and focus, plus practice.
The ability to make free throws, or the lack thereof, possibly results in more championships and key victories, than any part of basketball.
Yet, it has seemed to be a lost art — except in Connecticut.
In Monday’s NCAA championship game, UConn was 10-of-10 from the line. Kentucky was 13-of-24 and missed several front ends of one-and-ones and one pivotal two-shot attempt. The Wildcats missed their last three, one so badly it couldn’t even be classified as a brick.,
Connecticut won by six.
If you examine many of the close games in this year’s tournament — and there were many — the difference in winning and losing could be traced to the free-throw line.
During its amazing Cinderella run to the title, UConn was 41-of-44 from the free-throw line in victories over Iowa State and Michigan State.
By contrast, the foul line contained kryptonite again for another John Calipari team, In 2008, Memphis was 12-of-19 (and missed several key ones in the last minutes) in a loss to Kansas, which was 14-of-15.
Blake Ahearn of Missouri State holds the NCAA career record for free-throw percentage at 95 percent. Derek of Gonzaga is next at 93 percent. Years ago, Calvin Murphy of the Houston Rockets hit almost 96 percent for the season.
Used to be, the nation’s top free-throw shooters hit at least close to an 85 percent clip.
Now, if an individual or team shoots close to 70 percent, many coaches are elated as if they’ve reached a gold standard.
Many rules have changed over the years in basketball. The free throw has not.
So many players don’t seem interested or take pride in making free throws. They are a chore after they got fouled on the way to a highlight-reel slam dunk. It’s like they are consolation prizes rather than rewards.
Slam dunks and 3-pointers and spin moves are what make the television highlights and are shown on the season-ending videos.
No one shows players shooting free throws on the game highlights unless they result in a rebound slam.
Free throws to many players are horse-drawn carriages in a Ferrari world.
Yet, they decide championships and result in hardware.
And free throws are a triple-edged sword. It represents point swings for whoever makes or misses them.
It also completely changes strategy.
Examine what happened when the Kentucky-UConn game was on the line in the final minute Monday night. Calipari admitted that he was afraid to order his team to foul because UConn was one of the best free-throw shooting teams in the country. A foul pretty much meant an automatic two points.
Therefore, the Wildcats, with the clock running down, had to play through the possession, then went from an ill-advised double team that left a player wide open that resulted in two free throws that basically decided the game.
Being able to hit free throws allows the offense to almost toally dictate the end-of-the-game strategy. It puts the defense in a pick-your-poison dilemma.
If players want to be on a lot of highlight videos, then they can practice and tweak their best slam dunks. But if they want to cut down nets, maybe they ought to laboriously work on foul shots.
This NCAA tournament was decided by one-and-ones, not one-and-dones.
(Sports columnist David McCollum can be reached at 501-505-1235 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on twitter @dmaclcd)