Arizona Basketball

Arizona Wildcats not ready to give up hoops for soccer because of free throw woes

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Arizona’s free throw shooting percentage is among the worst in the nation with a ranking of 292nd out of 345 Division I teams.

The Wildcats’ percentage of 65.7 is only better than USC (65.5) and Washington State (64.7) in the Pac-12. The Trojans and Cougars are at the bottom of the conference standings.

However, two of the most competitive teams in the nation — San Diego State and North Carolina — rank below Arizona in free throw shooting percentage. The Aztecs rank 301st in the nation with a percentage of 65.5. North Carolina, which has won seven consecutive games, is No. 340 at 62.3 percent.

With Arizona’s struggles at the line, it begs the question: Are the Wildcats close to a school record for futility in that statistic?

Not even close.

The program’s record low is 57.8 percent in the 1945-46 season. Interestingly enough, the opponent free-throw record low percentage was also that season at 53.2 percent. Arizona’s opponents this season are shooting 70.5 percent from the line.

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“I’m tired of talking about free throws. You have to be tough enough to step up and make the daggone thing or go play soccer.” — North Carolina coach Roy Williams, whose team is shooting only 62.3 percent from the free-throw line.

AP TOP 5 FREE THROW SHOOTING
PERCENTAGES/RANKINGS

FTR-National ranking in free-throw percentage
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Despite the horrible free throw shooting, Arizona’s record in 1945-46 was 25-5. Fred Enke Sr.’s team, which won the Border Conference title, achieved a school record with the 25 victories. Only one other team — the 1950-51 team that went 26-5 — had more victories in a season until Arizona’s first Final Four team in 1987-88 went 35-3.

The Wildcats presently are ranked No. 4 with a 23-2 record despite their free-throw shooting woes.

Kentucky fans are critical of John Calipari’s team shooting only 67.3 percent, which ranks 254th nationally. Kentucky is 20-6 and ranked No. 18 in the AP Top 25 poll.

“It will be fine,” he said on his Monday night call-in show. “I’m not worried about it and I coach the team.”

Sean Miller, Pitt’s best free-throw shooter in that program’s history at 88.5 percent, has acknowledged that Arizona’s performance at the line is a concern.

“We missed a ton of free throws … heck we’ve missed a ton of free throws all year,” Miller said after the 69-66 double-overtime loss at ASU last Friday, a game in which Arizona shot 16-of-30 from the line. “Eventually, that’s going to run its course and we’re going to lose because we’re leaving too many points on the table.”

Roy Williams became downright fed up with the Tar Heels’ free-throw struggles when they made only 20 of 33 (60.6 percent) in an 86-83 loss to Texas on Dec. 18. Three days later, North Carolina was worse (14 of 24, 58.3 percent) in an overtime win over Davidson.

“I’m tired of talking about free throws,” Williams was quoted as saying. “You have to be tough enough to step up and make the daggone thing or go play soccer.”

Miller will not want Aaron Gordon to try soccer anytime soon although the freshman forward is shooting a meager 41.5 percent from the stripe. Gordon makes up for that deficiency by averaging nearly a double-double 11.8 points and 8 rebounds.

If Gordon shoots at least 70 percent from the free-throw line, his scoring average goes from 11.8 points a game to 13.2. He would have scored 34 more points than the 295 he has produced to this point.

But Gordon is nowhere near a 70 percent free-throw shooter. Never has been. Likely never will be.

When Gordon earned MVP honors for the U.S. Under-19 World Championships team last summer, he made only 9 of 17 (52.9 percent) free throw attempts. After his sophomore season at San Jose (Calif.) Archbishop Mitty in 2011, Gordon made only 3 of 16 (18.8 percent) free throw attempts for the U.S. Under-16 team.

Despite these horrific shooting woes at the line, Gordon was also the MVP of the McDonald’s All-Star Game and is rated a potential lottery pick in the NBA draft this year.

Shaquille O’Neal was also a McDonald’s All-American MVP in 1989. He went on to achieve a Hall of Fame caliber career in 18 NBA seasons. His career free-throw percentage: 52.7 percent.

Missed free throws are frustrating and can be debilitating, only if a player or team allows that. The great ones do not.

Arizona, Florida, San Diego State and North Carolina are not succumbing to poor performances at the line because they do so many other things well, especially on defense. Gordon is a much better talent than what his free-throw shooting suggests.

Heck, Arizona’s worst free-throw shooting team in the program’s history, 68 years ago, had a memorable season under Enke Sr.. The season ended in the NIT — the most significant postseason tournament in 1945-46 — with a loss to Kentucky and Adolph Rupp in New York City.

Further evidence that free throw shooting does not define a team’s success:

Arizona’s best free throw shooting team in history — the 2003-04 team — had six players who made at least 78 percent of their free throws. Mustafa Shakur, Salim Stoudamire, Channing Frye and Co., made an incredible 78.6 percent of their free throw attempts. Their record: 20-10 with a first-round flameout in the NCAA tournament against Seton Hall.

The 20 wins were the least amount for Lute Olson in 17 years.

At 23-2 presently, with both losses very close on the road to NCAA tournament teams (ASU and Cal) without Brandon Ashley, the Wildcats’ free-throw shooting deficiencies are not horrible enough for them to abandon basketball for soccer.

Not even close.

ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He also writes articles for Bleacher Report and Lindy’s College Sports.

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