Free throws are fairly simple. Stand behind the line painted 15 feet from the basket, bend your knees and try to push the ball straight toward the hoop. Add a little arc, and you’ve got it.
If only it were that easy for the No. 21 Minnesota men’s basketball team.
The Gophers have yet to fix a problem at which many fans rightfully squawk, and their problems at the line could determine how they finish in the Big Ten this season.
Last season in regular season conference play, 10 of the Gophers’ 18 games were decided by nine points or fewer. They were just 4-6 in those contests.
Thus far in 2010, Minnesota (9-1) has missed at least nine free throws in eight games. That’s not to say the Gophers, or any team for that matter, should be perfect from the line. After all, Wisconsin leads the Big Ten at 79.6 percent.
“We’re going to stop shooting free throws completely because it doesn’t work shooting 100 free throws,” coach Tubby Smith said Saturday when the Gophers thrashed Eastern Kentucky despite going 12-for-22 from the line.
Yes, the Gophers need to cut down their turnovers and improve their perimeter defense if they want to hang during conference play this season, but those issues can improve with experience and agility, respectively.
The real problem is free throws, something all basketball players have practiced since picking up a ball. Nobody loves the idea of shooting 100-plus free throws each day, but the mantra of practice makes perfect often holds true for the 15-footers.
Minnesota has been practicing from the charity stripe, Smith asserts, yet the struggles persist.
“We’re just not going to shoot them [in practice],” Smith joked. “Maybe that’ll work because it’s not working otherwise.”
Minnesota ranks 10th in the Big Ten in free-throw percentage with a measly 63.1 percent.
And when the Gophers' best all-around player is at the forefront of this problem, it becomes significantly elevated. Junior forward Trevor Mbakwe — the league’s only player averaging a double-double with 13.8 points and 10.2 rebounds per game, is averaging just 57.1 percent from the line.
With 77 free-throw attempts, Mbakwe has 28 more attempts than anyone else on the team (Ralph Sampson has 49, but he’s shooting a decent 69.4 percent). And when Mbakwe starts missing his throws, it “becomes contagious,” Smith said.
Everyone is pretty consistent with the freebies in practice, Sampson said after the Gophers beat Cornell on Dec. 4. They overcame a 26-for-44 performance from the line to win that game. Mbakwe was 12-for-20 from the stripe that day, and although Smith was glad to see that many attempts, he knows the Gophers still need to shore up their free throws in the two games before conference play begins.
“We’re an inside-oriented team, and we expect to get fouled,” Smith said. “Our post players have to expect to get fouled, and now they’ve got to step up and make free throws.”
The Gophers host Akron (4-3) on Wednesday and South Dakota State on Dec. 23. Assuming they can breeze through those, here’s a brief look at some key games during winter break:
Dec. 28 at Wisconsin
The Gophers open the Big Ten season with a border battle against the Badgers, who will likely be 10-2 at this time.
Wisconsin’s two losses this season have come on the road (UNLV) and on a neutral court (Notre Dame), and the Badgers are always tough at the Kohl Center. Their only home loss last season was to Illinois, but the Gophers stole a game in Madison in Jan. 2009.
Dec. 31 at Michigan State
The Spartans have always been Smith’s kryptonite. In his first three seasons with Minnesota, the Gophers went 0-6 in regular season matchups with the green team.
Michigan State is also one of few teams that can claim a tougher preseason schedule than the Gophers. In fact, this will be the Spartans’ Big Ten opener as they will play Texas on Dec. 22. A win in East Lansing would do wonders for Minnesota’s résumé.
Jan. 9 at Ohio State
There’s no telling whether or not the Buckeyes will still be the second-ranked team in the nation by this time, but this will be the perfect barometer for the Gophers.
If some combination of Mbakwe and Sampson can shut down freshman sensation Jared Sullinger, Minnesota will have a chance. If not, this one could get ugly and become a wake-up call for the Gophers.