Donate some buckets at the charity stripe

Clank clank clank clank clank clank clank clank clank clank.  That’s the sound of the Milwaukee Panthers from the charity strip on Tuesday night against Wisconsin.  Ten clanks, one for every missed free throw in the 60-54 loss to Bucky.

That’s not entirely fair – Milwaukee did make seven of seventeen free throws vs. Wisconsin.  However, it illustrates a real problem with the program.

The Panthers are a very good mid-major program this year.  Good enough to make the NCAA Tournament, although the at-large chances of doing so are slim-to-none with only one “signature” potential victory remaining on the schedule (two if the Bracketbuster draw is good).  They’re handling the ball much better than they have in the past, they’re shooting better than most of coach Rob Jeter’s tenure, and the defense has vastly improved.

But there’s a stinging truth about the program’s game that will not get better until it is addressed correctly.

The team stinks at free throws.  It seems like such an insignificant part of the basketball game, but free throws are often the difference between winning and losing a basketball game.

In early 2006, the Panthers headed to Green Bay receiving votes in the national AP poll.  They were on track to be ranked during the season for the first time in program history.  Joah Tucker went 1-of-8 from the free throw line.  I usually don’t single out one player, but those seven missed free throws were the difference in an ESPN2 game that ended in a Green Bay victory and the Panthers vanishing from the “Receiving votes” category.

It hasn’t gotten better for the Panthers from the line, and with the program on the verge of joining the upper echelon of mid-major teams, the free throws are what hold Milwaukee back.

This is, of course, not entirely the truth.  The Black and Gold have other problems, such as their poor starts to second halves and their penchant for going several minutes between field goals on occasion.  But the free throws are an easy, obvious problem that needs to be fixed.

Consider this.  The Detroit Titans lead the Horizon League with a 73.7% free throw percentage, one of four teams in the conference that has broken the 70% barrier.  If Milwaukee were to be shooting as close as possible to 73.7%, instead of shooting 133 of 223 from the line, they’d be shooting 164 or 165 out of 223.  That is 31 or 32 made free throws more than we’ve made this year, and over the course of the 11-game season that comes out to about three more points per game.

Not every game has been terrible for Milwaukee; they’ve shot over 70% on four occasions: UNI (76.9), IUPUI (75), SMSU (73.3), and TSU (72.7).  It was, in fact, the reason Milwaukee beat Southwest Minnesota State.  With Kaylon Williams on suspension, the Panthers hit 22 of 30 free throws and won by six.  If the Panthers shot 59.6% from the line (their season average), they’d have made 17 of 30 and won by one point.  Of course, the game would have been a whole lot different, and that is the point; free throw shooting saved Milwaukee on that day.

Most of the time, however, free throw shooting has been appalling.  After that Texas Southern 8-for-11 game, the next best game for the Panthers is 60%, a free throw percentage achieved at DePaul.  Aside from the Loyola and DePaul games, every one of those games was either closer than it should have been or a downright loss.

The UNI game was the Panthers’ best from the line, but it is proving to be the exception more than the rule.  If it had not been for the Texas Southern blowout, the UNI game would have been the fewest free throws Milwaukee had shot in a game all season (along with Michigan State – home cooking?).

Milwaukee’s biggest stinker of course came Tuesday night.  With the game seemingly getting out of hand early in the second half and for much of the first, Panthers fans didn’t think much of missed free throws with a double-digit deficit.  It came back to haunt Milwaukee in the worst way, with the Panthers losing a six-point game at home that would have been won with free throws.

While the Badgers went a cool 16-of-20 from the line, the Panthers dug themselves a hole with their free throw shooting.  If Milwaukee had shot 75% from the line, they’d have made 13-of-17 free throws – exactly enough to cover the deficit.  If they had even shot their season average of 59.6%, they would have been 10-of-17 and had three more points.  Perhaps the Badgers would have converted another possession and the score would have been the same.  Perhaps they wouldn’t.  But what would the atmosphere had been like if Jared Berggren’s three-pointer at the buzzer would not have established a three-point lead for Bucky and instead hit the three to tie the game at 51?  What would have been the reaction on Ryan Allen’s dunk then?

The point comes to this.  In games that Milwaukee should be easily winning – UIC, NIU, UALR – the Panthers are giving up way too many free throws and giving the other team an opportunity to win at the end.  The UIC game wouldn’t have had to be like it was if Milwaukee had canned 25 of 33 free throws instead of 19.  If the Panthers had made 18 of 25 against NIU and not 13, in all likelihood the Huskies wouldn’t have been fouling in the last minute.

And when the No. 14 team in the nation has you on the ropes, you can’t miss the easy shots they give you – you never know when it will make a difference.

There are a few things that Milwaukee can do to raise its free throw percentage and get the wins they’d otherwise miss out on or have a few laughers when otherwise they’d be tight games.

Milwaukee’s offense, the Swing/Dribble Drive Motion (which we will refer to from here on out as Jeterball) is all about spacing, like most offenses.  Because every one of five players can shoot the three – it’s not just guards, Kelm and Haarsma have the best percentages – the defense is forced to play everyone on the outside.  If they sag, Kyle Kelm or James Haarsma and especially Tony Meier is going to rain threes on them all day.  So the Panthers take advantage of that honest defense by kicking the ball inside for a mismatch or one-on-one shot in the post, or drive the ball with a guard and try to draw the foul.  Both plays are about getting the highest percentage shot possible – remember the axiom that the closer you are to the basket, the higher your percentage – and both plays give the best opportunity to draw a foul and get to the free throw line.

So what are the Panthers trying to do?  What good does it do to have Kaylon Williams driving for the score if he is going to miss more than half his free throws?  This is dangerous territory – Milwaukee’s talent advantage over other Horizon League teams can be nullified by the simple Hack-a-Panther defense if the right guy is driving.

So who is the right guy?  For defenses, sending Kaylon Wiliams to the line is a no-brainer.  If I were UNO, I’d be prepared to drop him like a bad habit if he ever tried coming near the lane.  The same goes for Demetrius Harris, but also our other primary ball-handlers in Paris Gulley and Shaq Boga.

For the Panthers and Jeter, the right guys are Evan Richard, Ryan Allen, and Tony Meier.

Evan Richard’s problem as a freshman this season is the same as Ryan Allen’s problem last year; he has trouble handling the ball. If Richard could handle the ball like Shaq Boga, he’d be All-Horizon League today.  As it is he struggles, and is unable to drive the lane.  But the Panthers need to get him involved, for the simple fact that he could be one of the top five free throw shooters in the world.  That’s not a joke.  He is 14-for-14 this season from the stripe, but more impressive to me is four years of high school basketball shooting 97% from the line.  That is not a typo.

So how do you get Richard to the free throw line?  Against non-conference teams it is tough, as many have the size to match Milwaukee and its tougher to get mismatches.  But that’s what the team needs to do.  Mitigate Richard’s ball-handling issues by getting him down low with a mismatch and feeding him the ball there.  Or, rather, just post him up and see if he can dip and dive to get a layup, or more likely take a foul.  The fact of the matter is if I had my life on the line and I needed one free throw and anyone to choose from, Evan Richard is my man.  That kind of advantage is not something that can sit on the bench or go unused on the court.  He is absolute money on the line, and everything Evan Richard learns should point him towards drawing fouls and handling the ball to get him more opportunities to draw fouls.

As for Tony Meier, it could be that James Haarsma is the key.  That seems quite ridiculous, but with Anthony Hill living down low (if only he did that for four years), Tony Meier was the guy outside stretching the defenses.  He’s the best jump-shooter on the team and when he’s hot, he’s hot.  Just ask Oliver Purnell.  But the fact that Haarsma is a solid three-point shooter should give Meier more opportunities to set up down low, take advantage of the mismatch and get an easy layup or a foul.  If it’s a foul, it’s a good sign – Meier is 79.6% for his career from the free throw line, topping 80% each of the last two years.

Ryan Allen, truth be told, is there right now.  His athletic ability matches Richard’s, but his ability to handle the ball allows him to draw a lot of fouls – no player on the team shoots as many free throws as he does.  Allen has the tools to drive the lane in Jeterball and draw fouls like a madman.  I think he’s there already, all the Panthers need to do is call his number more often.

There is something that I think will help Kaylon Williams and his teammates on shooting free throws.  Many coaches teach repetition, a physical routine that is meant to keep the player’s free throw the same whether he’s shooting in the Klotsche Center during practice or in front of 10,000 at the Arena.  While that physical routine is something that gets ingrained in players and allows them to “go through the motions” every day, there is a section of basketball that believes it is just as if not more important to also develop a mental routine to go along with the physical.

Mark Price, the greatest NBA free throw shooter of all-time, would say “Heel-toe” under his breath at the same point on every free throw.  It was there to remind him to get off the balls of his feet in his shot, but the hidden benefit is that by saying the words, he was thinking about the words and saying them out loud the same way every time.  It may seem insignificant to you, but for a free throw shooter at the line with the game on the line, “Heel-toe” may be a better alternative to “Holy crap if I miss this the game is over.”

Perhaps the players should try saying or thinking the same thing at every step of the process during their free throw.  That way they won’t think about the shot.

Or just ask Evan Richard.  That’s probably the better way to do it.

Enjoy the game tonight!  Did you like my preview on UNO?

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One Response

  1. “four years of high school basketball shooting 97% from the line”. It’s tough to decide how much we can afford to put him out there because he’s a freshman and needs more experience, but yes, so far Evan has been nails from the charity stripe. That HS stat is amazing (imagine if someone on our team shot even just 90% from FT against D-I competition???).

    I too want to see Meier, Allen and Evan in the lineup when trip or trips to the linel is going to decide the game. At the same time I want to see Kaylon, Haarsma, Kelm, Paris, etc. improve their FT shooting. It has to happen. With as good as they shoot from the field, it has to just be a mental hurdle.

    Heel-toe. C’mon Panthers make them FREEBIES!!!

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