Mike Strange: Free-throw shooting not what it was in Ray Mears era

Mike Strange

Bill Justus spoke to Tennessee's basketball team Wednesday night. The topic was the late, great coach Ray Mears, who will be remembered tonight at Thompson-Boling Arena.

It would have helped if Justus also dropped a few pointers on shooting free throws. He was one dead-eye.

I know, free-throw shooting is a boring topic. Free throws are so boring nobody wants to spend hours in a lonely gym practicing them much any more, either.

But it's an appropriate subject on a night to honor Mears. It's a timely subject, too, considering that 37-36 loss at Georgetown 13 days ago.

The Vols toed the line 11 times against the Hoyas, sank three and clanked eight. Do the math.

"It's frustrating that we're leaving points on the board like that,'' sophomore Josh Richardson said Tuesday.

So awful free-throw shooting has already cost UT one win. Hate to be the Christmas Grinch, but I bet it won't be the last.

Tennessee is shooting 62.8 percent, which ranks No. 305 out of 347 Division I teams. Generally, 70 percent is desirable. The Vols have topped 64 percent only twice in seven games.

Mears would have had a thing or two to say about free throws. Five of UT's top 10 career shooters played for him, including Jimmy England and Justus.

They were, in fact, teammates in the late 1960s. England, UT's best ever, finished his career at 88.1 percent, Justus at 84.9.

Drilling free throws isn't as sexy as it once was. When's the last you time you saw free throws on ESPN's Top Plays?

Eight of UT's top 10 career marksmen played from 1987 or earlier. Allan Houston (84.9) was from the early '90s. Only Chris Lofton (84.2 percent) represents the 21st Century.

I asked coach Cuonzo Martin if he thought a player could improve his free-throw shooting.

"I'd like to think so,'' he said. "If you do, you've got to put the time in it.''

That's Lofton. The ultimate self-motivator.

Who would you pick off this team to shoot a one-and-one with the score tied? Skyler McBee is 8-of-8 on the year; Jordan McRae is at 81.3 percent.

Trae Golden is down to 71 percent this year but averaged 82.7 percent over his first two seasons. He gives his pop the credit.

"My dad,'' Golden said. "Every night he'd come home from work and make me shoot free throws in my driveway.

"I had to make 10 free throws before I could go in.''

Free-throw struggles are usually a big man's demon (see Shaquille O'Neal). Jarnell Stokes is wobbling at 50 percent and Kenny Hall at 52.4.

"If you're struggling,'' said Martin, "I don't think you can be successful if you're getting to the line once or twice a game. It ought to be five, six or seven every night.''

That will be a point of emphasis, starting tonight against Wichita State.

Big men can buck the odds. A.W. Davis and Howard Wood were career 80-percent guys. Wayne Chism improved from 55.6 as a sophomore to 75.8 as a senior.

And getting back to Mears, a word on Ernie Grunfeld, No. 10 on the career chart at 78.9 percent.

In his career-high, 43-point game at Kentucky in 1976, Grunfeld was 11-of-11 at the stripe. He even "volunteered" to take two for Bernard King and two more for 22-percent shooter Irv Chatman.

He got away with it, too, in a 90-88 overtime win.

The Grunfeld Deception would be tougher to pull off now with all the TV cameras and replays. The Vols will have to improve the hard way.

Practice.

Mike Strange may be reached at strangem@knoxnews.com. Follow him at http://twitter.com/strangemike44 and http://blogs.knoxnews.com/strange.

© 2012 govolsxtra.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Comments » 20

jjsteel writes:

I can teach how to shoot free throws.

BruisedOrange writes:

"dribble...dribble...dribble...shoooot!
[CLANK]

I once asked a kid with terrible free throw problems if he would be willing to try some granny shots after practice.

He gave me a look, then told me he wouldn't be old enough to drink for another couple of years. But other than that, he'd try anything.

volfaninutah writes:

I remember the good ole days when Billy Justus, Billy Hahn and Jimmy England were just about automatic from the line. MOst players today don't think it's that important I think Hahn was about a 90% lifetime wasn't he?

govols26 writes:

Boy we sure could use another guy like Lofton here. Pure shooter, automatic free throws (especially when they really mattered) and all around good guy. Imagine the inside-outside threat he and stokes would pose...

jjsteel writes:

bend your knees & shoot wid your legs.

crmcm44#321757 writes:

Considering all the offensive issues this team has why would the coaching staff not force them to work on something that should be fixable? They talk about lack of team leadership; the coach should lead.

bigdisbig writes:

They suck at free throw shooting because the coach sucks at demanding attention to the shots. The players will not give attention to free throws until the coach does.

Bark_at_the_Moon writes:

Free throw shooting is about 90% mental. If you practice them enough, you will be mentally prepared (confident) that you will hit them. They are called FREE because they are gimme's. Kids are all about dunking today which they do grea....shooting - not so much.

underthehill writes:

3 for 11 resulting in a one point loss..no excuse..lack of practice..lack of technique..lack of focus..lack of routine..lack of ability to handle pressure..whatever..get it resolved..

murrayvol writes:

Made free throws don't light up the ESPN highlight reel.

johnlg00 writes:

in response to volfaninutah:

I remember the good ole days when Billy Justus, Billy Hahn and Jimmy England were just about automatic from the line. MOst players today don't think it's that important I think Hahn was about a 90% lifetime wasn't he?

If so, he didn't have enough attempts to make the all-time list. The Vol career leaders are all listed in the article, though not in order.

johnlg00 writes:

in response to murrayvol:

Made free throws don't light up the ESPN highlight reel.

No doubt. No street-cred in playground ball, either. At least as important, not enough goals in inner-city neighborhoods for guys to put in the individual time to practice them.

Classof72 writes:

If they don't care about winning enough to shoot free throws like champions, there's nothing the fans can do. Coach should set up an ongoing competition with the Lady Vols for practice free-throw shooting. These guys, who are shooting .628, would probably just give up and not even try. They could never shoot free throws like the Lady Vols, who are shooting .725. It's OK, gentlemen, winning is difficult. Somebody has to lose, after all. We understand.

volfaninutah writes:

in response to johnlg00:

If so, he didn't have enough attempts to make the all-time list. The Vol career leaders are all listed in the article, though not in order.

I stand corrected, Justus was #1 , England was #2, and Hahn was #8 on the all time list. In the article above I think they were primarily referring to big men's struggles at the line. But, Justus was a 90% shooter, England was 88% and Hahn was a lowly career 80%. But they all made them when it counted it seemed...

brokendownoldvol writes:

No one can shoot from 10-15 ft out anymore either. All kids practice now is dunks and 3 pointers.

johnlg00 writes:

in response to volfaninutah:

I stand corrected, Justus was #1 , England was #2, and Hahn was #8 on the all time list. In the article above I think they were primarily referring to big men's struggles at the line. But, Justus was a 90% shooter, England was 88% and Hahn was a lowly career 80%. But they all made them when it counted it seemed...

No argument there. There has always been a dichotomy in free-throw shooting between big men and guards. Chamberlain, Russell, Shaq, Dwight Howard--none of them had over 50% career FT averages. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Tim Duncan were/are around the 60% mark. Somewhat bucking that trend was the career of Karl Malone, 6'9", 270. His first year in the NBA, he shot just over 30% from the line; his last several years he shot about 80% from the line, so it IS possible for players to get better at it later in life. It is just a matter of the players getting good advice about their strokes and then putting in the necessary time to groove them.

golfman1975 writes:

80.6% free throws tonight....

johnlg00 writes:

in response to ROCKY_TOP_HAS_CRUMBLED:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

Since I don't know what you wrote, I can only guess that the words you used at least suggested that there was a racial component to the way guys play these days. I was making a cultural argument. People who live in crowded urban neighborhoods don't have the advantage of (semi)private goals on which to practice their strokes. There have been numerous white kids who labored under the same disadvantage; there are black kids from suburban neighborhoods who DO have driveway goals.

One example of the former was Billy Cunningham, UNC All-America and several times an NBA All-Star. When he came to UNC, he was a terrible shooter from outside 8'; he didn't learn how to shoot real jumpers or free throws until he got to college. Examples of the latter would be the Curry boys and Grant Hill, sons of pro athletes who had the leisure, coaching, and facilities to develop classic shooting motions. Hope that helps.

Classof72 writes:

in response to Classof72:

If they don't care about winning enough to shoot free throws like champions, there's nothing the fans can do. Coach should set up an ongoing competition with the Lady Vols for practice free-throw shooting. These guys, who are shooting .628, would probably just give up and not even try. They could never shoot free throws like the Lady Vols, who are shooting .725. It's OK, gentlemen, winning is difficult. Somebody has to lose, after all. We understand.

It was obviously the tough love motivational speech above which caused the team to shoot 29 for 36 at the line last night for an .806 percentage. Or not. Whatever.

That's what we're talkin' about. Nicely done, gentlemen. Now, as they say, the trick is to keep it up until you complete the job like champions.

BxVol writes:

in response to brokendownoldvol:

No one can shoot from 10-15 ft out anymore either. All kids practice now is dunks and 3 pointers.

So true, as are many other points made on the subject.I wonder if young kids play 21 today, a game which was primarily about foul shooting.Back in my day (decades ago) we started pickup games by shooting foul shots, first two players to make a foul shot were the captains and then they would choose teams.I for one think that the overall skill set of players today has fallen off due to the over emphasis on dunking and shooting the three ball.For my fellow old timers remember when Oscar Robertson would back his man down to get as close as possible to the basket to shoot his jumper.

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