TUCSON, Ariz. – The free-throw line has not moved anywhere for 115 years. The scions of basketball decided 15 feet was a fair distance for a player to stroke an unencumbered shot. All it has done in the ensuing century is inspire ulcers among coaches, frustration among players and amazement among fans who can't fathom what's so tough about a midrange try without a hand in sight.
In college basketball, especially, the free throw is a puzzle. This season, college players have made 69.2 percent of their free throws, 6 percentage points fewer than their NBA counterparts. This percentage barely changes year to year, and the team single-season record has stood since 1984. The culprits? Harvard, of course.
Free-throw aptitude doesn't require an Ivy League diploma. Take the Wisconsin Badgers, who enter their third-round Southeast Regional game Saturday night against Kansas State shooting a potential record-setting 82.3 percent from the line. Last season, they weren't even the best free-throw-shooting team in their state, thanks to UW-Green Bay. Only one Badgers player, Jason Bohannon, shot better than 82.3 percent. He graduated. Wisconsin hasn't added any dynamos or shed itself of a Shaq-ian bricklayer. As much as they'd love to attribute it to something, chances are the Badgers are little more than a good shooting team finding a remarkable amount of luck at the stripe.
"I'm not sure we've figured it out, to tell you the truth," said Wisconsin assistant Gary Close, the team's shooting coach. "We work on it, but that's not the cure-all. Everybody works hard. We're not going to shoot 80-some percent every year."
Still, trying to explain it is fun for the Badgers. They take pride in their free-throw shooting. It may not correlate with winning. (The tournament's four No. 1 seeds are ranked 28th, 133rd, 206th and 239th nationally, and only three of the top 10 made the tournament.) It may be an anomaly of small sample size. (The Badgers shoot 15 free throws per game, which ranks 341st of 346 teams.) And it may play into the stereotype about the Badgers. (They are slow. Methodical. Boring. So, yeah, duh, they're going to make free throws.)
"But," Wisconsin forward Jon Leuer said, "making free throws can help win games, so if the stereotype is winning games, that's fine with me."
The Badgers won their opening-round game by going 20-of-25 at the line, which actually dropped their percentage by .01. Any reasonable coach would take 80 percent all day, though Wisconsin has set such a high standard that coach Bo Ryan wants more.
So every day, the Badgers go through a free-throw regimen that demands perfection. Pods of players stand at different baskets and start one-on-one contests. Each player gets two shots. Every pure swish is worth two points. A regular make with even an ounce of iron nets one point. A miss is minus-one. Winners advance to face other winners. Losers run.
"It does help hone your skills because you want to swish every shot," forward Keaton Nankivil said. "You see people get frustrated when they rattle one in. Instead of settling for making it, you want to swish it. Don't leave it up to chance."
Leuer is the self-proclaimed champion who, in his own words, "puts up fours like it's nobody's business." At 6 feet, 10 inches, he's an unlikely free-throw maven. And yet at 85.6 percent, he has improved nearly 14 points from last season. Jordan Taylor, the Badgers' other star, jumped 12 points from last season. It's contagious around the locker room – Nankivil (plus-11), Tim Jarmusz (plus-22), Ryan Evans (plus-13). Only Mike Bruesewitz is down, and at 72.7 percent, he'd be the best shooter on a number of teams.
It's not as if Ryan has emphasized free throws more this season than the past. The growth is purely organic, and the Badgers think it's borne of extra time in the gym. Shoot enough and you should improve.
"It's kind of like putting," Close said. "If you've got the same stroke, you've got a better chance of making it. Same thing at the free-throw line. If you're consistent in your delivery and demeanor, you'll be a lot better."
Because no two players shoot free throws the same, coaches work on honing shots and routines individually. Leuer's routine always had been the same until this season. He placed his right foot even with the nail in the middle of the stripe, aligning himself perfectly with the hoop. He took three dribbles. He spun the ball in his hands. He shot it.
Close suggested he drop the spin. Leuer isn't ready to say the elimination of a spin turned him into the 54th-best free-throw shooter in the country. But he'll take it.
The free throw, Leuer said, is a mental activity more than anything. When he catches a ball off a curl and tosses up a jump shot or grabs a rebound and puts it back, it's instinct. At the line, Leuer's arms know what to do, his legs know what to do – his whole body has been trained for those moments. Ten seconds to think about a single shot, though, can feel like a million.
"Free throws are easy points," Nankivil said. "Well, they should be easy."
If they were that simple, K-State would rank plenty higher than 278th in the country. The Wildcats make 65.9 percent of their free throws. Should fifth-seeded K-State run into stingy referees against the fourth-seeded Badgers, well, it won't be much of a game, no matter how well Jacob Pullen and Curtis Kelly match up against Taylor and Leuer.
The Badgers are more concerned with winning an NCAA title than stealing Harvard's. They have little margin for error there, too. Should Wisconsin head to the line 25 times and hit 20 again, it should put them in good position to win. Ryan will be satisfied. Practice won't include much running. Life will be good. And it will leave the Badgers at 82.17 percent.
In 1984, Harvard shot 82.18 percent.