Tony Wroblicky plays old-school basketball. At 6 feet 10, he will back opponents toward the basket, power to the rim, maybe toss in a soft hook, rebound with a two-palmed grip and swat fluttering shots.
It’s all very traditional . . . until American University’s senior center steps to the free throw line.
In one motion, he cups, rotates, raises and shoots the ball with only his left hand.
“The first couple of games, it was very strange,” Wroblicky said. “I could hear people in the stands: ‘Shoot it two-handed!’ Players on the free throw line would ask me why I was shooting like that. They were very confused.”
A career 55 percent shooter using common style, Wroblicky embraced first-year Coach Mike Brennan’s suggestion to try something different.
The experiment was a rousing success, and like his team, which was low-regarded at the start of the season, Wroblicky has defied expectations. Using the one-handed approach, he is making 71.4 percent of his free throws, including 76.3 percent in 18 Patriot League games.
Picked to finish ninth among 10 teams, Wroblicky and the second-seeded Eagles (19-12) will play for an NCAA tournament berth Wednesday night at top-seeded Boston University (24-9) in the conference’s championship game.
Aside from the uptick in free throw accuracy, Wroblicky is second on the team in scoring (12.1), first in rebounding (7.3) and blocks (1.9), second in assists (3.0) and first among the regulars in field goal percentage (59.0).
Upon accepting the AU job after four years as a Georgetown assistant, Brennan said he “looked at Tony’s numbers and looked at the shot, and the way he shot, there was no way it was going to go in consistently. He was a willing participant. To change a guy’s shot is a really difficult thing to do.”
Essentially, they deconstructed the act of shooting by eliminating dribbles, the two-handed lift and standard release. Brennan taught Wroblicky what he teaches anyone learning to shoot: Start under the basket using one hand and learn simple mechanics. Instead of layups, however, Wroblicky stretched his range to 15 feet.
He catches the referee’s pass with two hands and does the rest with his strong hand only. With repetition, he polished his technique, producing a nicely arced shot that typically hits the target without touching the rim.
It didn’t start off well. The first game he went to the line this season, he made just 3 of 9.
“When I’m shooting free throws, it’s a pressure situation and I wasn’t confident,” he said. “It was new to me. It took a little while to get confident in the form, but once that happened, it started working.”
Wroblicky was 7 for 7 in the first meeting against BU, the start of a 49-for-60 stretch (81.7 percent). He is 5 of 6 in the conference tournament.
Free throw technique was not the only radical change this season for the Southern California native. Brennan, who replaced Old Dominion-bound Jeff Jones, implemented the Princeton offense, which requires players to perform tasks outside their comfort zone. For Wroblicky, that meant popping out to the perimeter, dribbling and supplying the ball for back-door layups.
“We asked a ton more of him,” Brennan said. “He came along a lot more quickly than anyone anticipated. Usually it takes guys years to pick up everything.”
The transition was not easy for the Eagles, who lost four of their first five and seven of 10. After Christmas break, they began to click. AU won its final non-conference game and then its first 10 Patriot contests.
“It’s tough, especially for guys like Tony, who played on the block his first three years and then had to come out and control the ball a lot of the time,” said sophomore guard Jesse Reed, the team’s leading scorer. “We try to make it easier on him by giving him opportunities to make easy plays.”
Wroblicky developed into one of the league’s best big men, earning first-team honors and the defensive player of the year award. He blocked at least three shots in nine games, with a high of six against Bucknell.
Wroblicky also has had to hone his ball-control skills. From the high post, he has learned to pick out teammates cutting to the basket: seven assists in the semifinal victory over Holy Cross for an average of 5.7 in the past three games. (He is ninth in the league in assists.)
He has also learned to dribble and drive, ending up with layups and fouls — which has led to more free throws.
“We made him shoot it a lot in [preseason] practice,” Brennan said. “I said, ‘Look, it’s going in. I know it’s uncomfortable, but it’s better than being comfortable and missing all the time.’ He started to see it going in at practice, and it was just a matter of time of getting fouled in games and saying, ‘Okay, I am going to do this.’”
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