On an early Sunday evening two weekends ago, James Padgett and Seth Allen stepped off the team bus after a game and walked straight to the free throw line.
Hours before, the Maryland basketball team had edged George Mason, 69-62, in the BB&T Classic at Verizon Center despite missing 16 free throws. Allen and Padgett, a speedy freshman guard and a consistent senior leader, respectively, were the primary culprits; they shot a combined 6 of 15 from the charity stripe.
While teammates trickled home from the Comcast Center loading dock, Allen and Padgett marched into the arena, where six hoops framed the court.
For hours they remained, shooting 200 free throws apiece, the bad taste slowly dissipating with each made shot. Fifty on the two main baskets. Twenty-five at each of the four side baskets. They rebounded for each other, rotating and competing until satisfied.
Free throws are still a work in progress for Coach Mark Turgeon’s group heading into Wednesday night’s home game against Monmouth (5-5), no matter how hard Turgeon and his assistants “beat it into them,” he said. The Terrapins are shooting just 67.6 percent from the line, which ranks 198th nationally and seventh in the ACC. After practice, each player must pay an exit fee of 25 free throws. Lately, Turgeon has asked for 50. Most happily oblige, and stick around for a half-hour longer than normal anyway.
“Our guys know they’re important,” Turgeon said of the free throws. “We’re at [67.6] percent. That’s not good enough. We should be shooting better than that.”
Improvements can only come with repetition and muscle memory. Over-thinking about the consequences of a make or miss can derail a developed routine.
“If you shoot the same way every time, you can always expect the same results,” Padgett said. “If you dribble twice then shoot it, and the next time you dribble three times, you’re off your routine so you’re not as comfortable. We try to focus on free throw routine, get the same motion, take the same amount of time, doing it over until you get it. When you constantly see it going in, it’s a confident-booster.”
Padgett, for instance, takes three dribbles and ensures his hands are comfortably spread on the basketball. Shaquille Cleare spins the ball once, dribbles three times and spins again before launching the ball with an awkward, sidewinding release that actually has him shooting 75 percent (15 of 20) from the line this season, second-best among the regulars and tops among Maryland’s post players.
Still, the Terrapins are shooting slightly better than the 66.4 percent mark they posted in Turgeon’s inaugural season. Padgett has made marked improvements, upping his percentage from 56.4 percent to 65.6 percent, while Alex Len and Nick Faust have seen their numbers leap by more than 10 percent.
Only twice this season have the Terps shot better than 80 percent in a game; they made 14 of 17 against Northwestern and 18 of 22 on Saturday versus South Carolina State.
After that dreadful Sunday against George Mason, the Terps took Monday off. Before Tuesday’s practice, Turgeon approached Padgett and asked how many free throws the forward had shot since Sunday night. “Four hundred,” Padgett replied.
“It was a teaching tool for the rest of the team,” Turgeon said.
A heightened focus on free throws remains consistent with Turgeon’s coaching style this season, which has emphasized the “little things,” as Cleare and Padgett said. Team-centric defensive principles, a pass-first offensive mentality and aggressiveness on the boards all fall under this umbrella.
Over the summer, Padgett took it upon himself to fix a glaring problem. Some days he shot 200 free throws, others he shot 500, mixing trips to the line in between workouts. Noticing tangible improvements helped alleviate the monotony.
“I heard someone say the other day that, in order to do something well, you have to do it at least 10,000 times,” Padgett said. “I shot way more than 10,000 free throws.”
Padgett was actually referring to Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers,” which holds that mastering any task derives from practicing it for 10,000 hours, not 10,000 times. But at least all those summer sessions have Padgett inching closer toward Gladwell’s gaudy mark. And the Terps? They’re just getting better from the free throw line.