NEW ORLEANS (AP)—Relax. Close your eyes. Picture yourself at the foul line.
Now, really see it: Dribble, dribble—swish!—with your shooting hand dangling for an extra second or two, showing off a perfect follow-through.
After trying all kinds of things to make the Memphis Tigers better foul shooters, coach John Calipari turned to visualization a few weeks ago. He was so serious about it that he scrapped free throws from the practice routine, telling players to instead spend a few minutes every night thinking about making them.
Memphis is still the worst foul shooting team in the NCAA tournament at 61.3 percent. But the point is clear: If that is the Tigers’ biggest flaw, they feel good about their chances of making a long run in the NCAA tournament.
Calipari became somewhat animated in delivering that message Friday. Tired of answering questions about his team’s biggest weakness, he flashed an incredulous look and said, “We’re 31-3.”
Then, raising his voice, he repeated, “We’re 31-3!”
The Tigers carry that record and a national-best 23-game winning streak into the second round against Nevada (29-4) on Sunday.
Wolf Pack coach Mark Fox is more awed by what Memphis players can do than the one thing they can’t.
“I’ve never coached in an NBA game, but from what I have watched of them it looks like we will be playing one on Sunday,” Fox said after his team’s 77-71 overtime victory against Creighton in the first round.
After studying the Tigers more, Fox ramped up the praise Saturday.
“They get your attention,” he said. “Extremely long, extremely athletic, very explosive and at every position. They really are a complete offensive unit. They’re very fast and can play in the halfcourt. There’s a reason they’re sitting on a (No.) 2 seed.”
Memphis came into the tournament the 13th least-accurate foul shooters of all 336 teams in Division I. Only two other teams were in the bottom 40.
Calipari said his teams usually have been near the bottom of their conference. He has a theory why.
“Think about how fast we’re playing,” he said. “You just sprinted, you’re going nuts and now you have to slow it down and shoot a free throw.”
The Tigers shot 68.2 percent from the line last year, when they made the regional final. Although Calipari downplays the dip as only a couple real points per game, he didn’t just accept it.
He tried all sorts of drills. He tried competitions. No luck.
While going to visualization could be considered giving up, consider that Calipari is doing so on the advice of some pretty credible people: Longtime NBA and NCAA coach Larry Brown, renowned sports psychologist Bob Rotella and leadership guru Ken Blanchard.
Forward Robert Dozier is among those this experiment was meant to help. It didn’t look like it was working when he went 1-for-5 in the Conference USA title game, but he improved to 3-for-4 in the first-round victory over North Texas and credited the technique for the difference.
“I catch myself doing it from time to time,” he said. “I even sit in my bed sometimes, just working on my free-throw form trying to get better. If I continue to do that, it may help me. … If you visualize yourself making it, you’ll make it, rather than just thinking, ‘Oh my God, I don’t know if I’m going to make it or not.”’
Sixth man Jeremy Hunt is among the skeptics.
“I don’t do it,” he said. “I feel like if I can go in the gym and work on it myself, that’ll be enough.”
Calipari doesn’t worry about foul shots late in a tight game. He claims the Tigers shoot 85 percent in the final 4 minutes because they respond to pressure.
It’s early in the game when their mechanics fail them.
“It’s definitely a mental thing for us,” said freshman Doneal Mack, who has a 70.8 percent success rate. “I mean, when we shoot in practice we make them and when we shoot in tough situations we make them.”
Still, don’t expect Nevada to try rattling Memphis by repeatedly sending Tigers to the line.
“That’s a Catch-22 because to put them on the foul line you have to put your players in a bad position and maybe get them in foul trouble,” Fox said. “That’s not something we want to do.”
Memphis hasn’t been hurt by free-throw shooting yet, but the Tigers haven’t been in many close games. They also haven’t played many elite teams.
Only three teams they beat in the regular season made the NCAA tournament and none was seeded higher than eighth. Thus, a victory over seventh-seeded Nevada would be their biggest win so far, and the Wolf Pack are regarded as a strong mid-major, not a national power.
Nevada is led by big man Nick Fazekas, the WAC player of the year, who averages 20.4 points and 11.2 rebounds.
“He has a place in the NBA,” said Calipari, a former NBA coach.