Hawkeyes fixing free throw problem


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Sinking a free throw seems simple.

Bounce the ball a few times. Line up an unimpeded 14-foot shot. Let the ball fly, watch it slip through the net, and repeat if needed.

As easy as it sounds, though, free-throw shooting has been the bane of the Iowa men’s basketball team for much of the year. The Hawkeyes have made just 67 percent of their freebies this season, the No. 224 mark in the country. Of the nine players with at least 20 attempts this year, six shoot worse than 70 percent.

Even worse, Iowa can look back on several close losses where a few made free throws could have changed the outcome. The Black and Gold missed half a dozen free throws (12-for-18) in a 6-point loss to Long Beach State on Nov. 22. The Hawks whiffed on 11 (12-for-23,) when they lost to Iowa State by 3 points on Dec. 10.

That loss was especially heartbreaking because Iowa, down by 5 with 17 seconds left, had the opportunity to get within a basket when freshman Roy Devyn Marble (51.1 percent) was sent to the charity stripe to shoot three freebies. He missed the first two, and the team appeared mentally defeated.

“The ironic thing is, they make them in practice,” head coach Fran McCaffery said after the Iowa State game. “We chart every free throw from the opening day of practice. We shoot a ton. We focus, and we concentrate.”

A few difficult months later, all that work appears to be paying dividends. Iowa is shooting 70.5 percent in conference play, and the team has shot at least 80 percent in two-straight games. That streak, while short, includes the antithesis of the Iowa State game: The Hawkeyes shot 80 percent (20-for-25) from the stripe in their 64-63 win over Indiana on Feb. 5.

Individual performances are improving too. Forward Melsahn Basabe has been a completely different shooter in Big Ten play, nailing 82.3 percent of his free throws after connecting on slightly half his shots in his first 12 games.

Not everyone has improved as Basabe has — junior forward Andrew Brommer has revamped many aspects of his game over the past year, but his free-throw shooting remains erratic. Brommer, a career 45.3 percent shooter from the line, has shot just 11-of-29 this season (37.9 percent).

Perhaps the brawny forward should take lessons from Matt Gatens. The junior shooting guard is threatening his own school record for free-throw percentage in a season (90.4 percent in 2008-09), and he has a good chance of supplanting Luke Recker for the highest career percentage (87.3 percent).

The Iowa City native said the most important aspects of his success have been practice and making the first shot.

“You see the first one going in, and you feel better,” he said after his milestone. “[Then] you just go back to shooting in the gym by yourself — shoot those free throws in the same routine and knock them down.”

It isn’t realistic to think practice is going to turn Brommer or Devon Archie (30 percent) into the automatic shooter Gatens is, of course. Still, Basabe said he’s not worried about the team’s percentage. The freshman said shooting slumps tend to sort themselves out over the course of a long season.

“A lot of times, it’s not your form but it’s fatigue and it’s conditioning,” Basabe said. “Early in the year, you’re not in mid-season shape yet, and that can affect how you shoot free throws. I feel myself, when we got to conference play, I kind of had my wind with me better than I did so I’ve been able to knock them down.”

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