Season Could Be on Line

By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 23, 2008

While watching a recent college basketball game on television, an 85-year-old retired foot doctor in Seal Beach, Calif., noted that some right-handed Memphis players failed to keep in their elbows when releasing their shots, causing some free throws to drift right and clank off the rim.

Even from 1,800 miles away, Tom Amberry knows flawed shooting when he sees it. Fifteen years ago, he made 2,750 consecutive free throws, then a Guinness world record that has since been broken. These days, he has sudden curiosity in a talented team that makes barely more than half its free throws.

"Making free throws is really simple," Amberry said. "Just put the ball in the basket."

For Memphis, that's easier said than done. The outcome of tonight's game against No. 2 Tennessee, a potential national championship and perhaps even an undefeated season ultimately could hinge on the Tigers' ability to do what they haven't done consistently all season: make uncontested 15-foot shots.

Memphis is first in the polls but almost last nationally (326th of 328) in free throw shooting, making just 58.8 percent. Among the past 12 teams that competed in national title games, only Connecticut, the 2004 national champion, made les s than 65 percent of its free throws.

That Memphis is supremely skilled but inferior at the free throw line does not surprise Jim Poteet, a former NAIA and Division II coach for 25 years whose doctoral dissertation, entitled "The Paradox of the Free Throw," asserted that factors that make the shot look so easy are the very reasons it is so hard. On the second page of Poteet's 100-page dissertation, he references a 1998 quote by then-New Jersey Nets and current Memphis coach John Calipari, who told Sports Illustrated, "If we play great defensively, the free throws take care of themselves."

Poteet said if you walk into any gymnasium, "you won't see players practicing free throws. They'll be shooting as far out as they can or practicing dunking. There is an emphasis on athleticism. There is no reason, with the kind of players Memphis has, to shoot 58 percent. It will cost them. They won't win the national championship."

Calipari has maintained confidence that his players will make free throws in the NCAA tournament, when games will presumably become closer, and can point to last season as evidence. Memphis entered last year's NCAA tournament ranked 316th in free throw shooting, making 61 percent. But in four NCAA tournament games, the Tigers made 71.6 percent of their free throws (73 of 102) en route to a region final loss to Ohio State.

What's more, in their 79-78 victory over Alabama-Birmingham on Feb. 16, the Tigers made just 12 of 22 free throws but made the most important one: With 6.5 seconds left, Chris Douglas-Roberts converted a three-point play, the free throw providing the margin of victory.

Memphis also made 14 of 18 free throws in Wednesday's 97-71 victory over Tulane. When asked about concerns after the game, Calipari said: "Free throws, we shot 78 percent, so we're pretty good there. I mean, we won our last game [against UAB] at the free throw line."

Florida State assistant Andy Enfield, a renowned shooting coach who has worked with more than 100 NBA players, said hoping for a sudden renaissance at the free throw line is a dangerous proposition.

"That's like Shaquille O'Neal saying, 'I make them when the game is on the line,' " said Enfield, whose Seminoles rank fourth nationally in free throw shooting. "That line of thinking gets you in trouble because at the end of the day, you always move back to your percentages. You might have a game going 8 for 10, but over the long run, you'll be right back at 58 percent."

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