George Marshall sits alone on the line in a gym.
Marshall bends his knees and flicks his wrist, releasing the ball effortlessly in a smooth motion.
He does the same thing, over and over again like a machine with the same, automated product at the end of the sequence, each made more pure than the next.
But the basket Marshall puts each basketball effortlessly through doesn’t reside on the Kohl Center floor. And Marshall isn’t shooting in the middle of a game.
Instead, the redshirt freshman guard registers his makes inside the court of the Nicholas Johnson Pavilion, where the Badgers hold their practices.
“Have to get these extra shots in, have to work on the craft to get better at it,” Marshall said. “A lot of [making free throws] is mental, but a lot of it is muscle memory and getting better at it.”
Marshall was still bothered about his missed free throw against Michigan State Jan 22., a game where the guard missed the first of two must-make attempts from the charity stripe with his team down two with just a few seconds remaining – he missed the second intentionally.
It was what Marshall described as a “tense moment” on the line before he released the first attempt, a shot he knew he missed as soon as he released it.
But the framework and the memory of the miss lasted longer than the actual moment itself, playing itself through Marshall’s head throughout the night.
“I thought about it for a long time, just wishing I could go back to the free throw because I felt I rushed it just a little bit,” Marshall said. “I was really disappointed when I missed especially when I knew the reason I missed it was because I rushed it a little bit.
“It was tough to go to sleep that night.”
The struggles from the free throw line go well beyond Marshall as an individual. Looking at the Michigan State game as an individual case study, Wisconsin shot just 7-of-18 from the line as a team. That’s 39 percent and 11 points off the board in a game the Badgers lost by just two.
“You can’t put too much pressure on one miss,” redshirt senior center Jared Berggren said after the loss. “I missed plenty before that … all those points [left off the board] count the same.
“For [Marshall] to miss one down the stretch is equally as important as all the misses before that so you can’t beat yourself up about that.”
From a season standpoint, the struggles at the free throw line haven’t been on just a game-by-game basis. Every night has been a constant struggle from the line for the Badgers, who are ranked a pathetic 333rd in the country in free throw percentage. That’s 333 out of 345 teams in Division I basketball.
With a percentage of 60.8 from the charity stripe and Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan’s teams known as traditionally the best free throw-shooting teams in the nation, something hasn’t been adding up so far this season.
Perhaps the biggest indicator of the bizarre flip-flop for the Wisconsin program is Ryan Evans’ numbers from the line. Just a season ago Evans was second on the team with a 73 percent free throw conversion rate. This season, he’s just a shocking 39 percent, looking visibly uncomfortable while shooting.
And it’s not like the struggles and the pressure that comes with trying to fix such a big issue doesn’t affect the mentality of the Badgers.
“Honestly, I’m kind of tired of getting asked about free throws because it’s one of those things we got to fix,” redshirt senior forward Mike Bruesewitz said. “It just has to get done. That’s that. Free throws are free throws and we have to knock them down.
“I’ll probably stop answering questions about free throws for the rest of the season.”
While that might be one of many reasonable steps to correcting what is becoming a plague of poor shooting at the line, the Badgers aren’t lacking for practice.
Marshall said his head coach hasn’t fretted about the team failing to convert at a reasonable rate from the line, but rather has emphasized the need to put in the extra shots and time to honing the skill.
“He never really made a big deal about it,” Marshall said. “Other than the fact that we should be getting more repetitions in, working on the craft more.”
Just a few days later the Badgers saw the inverse of their fate against the Spartans when they took on the Minnesota Gophers Saturday. With his team down two, the Gophers’ Rodney Williams went to the line to shoot two free throws with just over a second remaining in the game.
He missed the second free throw as the Badgers survived their own 4-of-8 shooting performance from the line to come out with a narrow victory.
And while it’s impressive the team managed to go 1-1 in two games it shot a combined 11-of-26 from the line, the Badgers’ struggles have gotten to the point where even the head coach was joking about it after the victory over the Gophers.
“We smoked them from the free throw line didn’t we”? Ryan said wryly.