Free throw shooting has been anything but free for the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team this season.
The two biggest culprits happen to be the two Badgers who get to the line most often: redshirt sophomore forward Ethan Happ and senior forward Nigel Hayes.
Happ has gone 66-for-138 (47.8 percent) from the line, while Hayes is 111-190 (58.4 percent). (All statistics are as of March 7.)
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As a team, UW makes only 64.4 percent of its attempts. The only team worse is last-place Rutgers at 62 percent. The Badgers made more than 70 percent of their free throws last season and finished second in conference two seasons before that.
The woes compounded as the season wore on, particularly for Hayes and Happ. In the three games before entering the Big Ten tournament, Happ was 2-for-14. Hayes was 10-for-28 during the regular season’s final four games.
Perhaps even more troubling is the regression from both players. Last season, Happ shot free throws at 64.3 percent (108-for-168). Hayes is currently just worse than his freshman year free throw shooting performance, when he made 58.5 percent of his attempts. He improved the next two seasons, jumping to 74.4 percent and 73.6 percent from the line his sophomore and junior years, respectively.
It’s not lost on Hayes that free throws will have to improve if UW wants to make it far in the tournament.
“If we can get the free throws down that’s cost us two games here lately, and it’s kind of put us in some tough spots to win and pull out games,” Hayes said. “Knowing that if you make free throws you go from up seven and they take a bad shot and we’re putting my guy [Matt Ferris] in, instead of you’re missing those and now you’re playing down to the last second because you weren’t able to ice the game.”
Just how baffling is this recent development?
“Extremely,” Hayes said. “I don’t know. Obviously, I know. Obviously free throws are mental, at least that’s what a lot of people say. It’s mental. I agree. It is mental.”
Hayes received a text message from former UW assistant Gary Close who told him “I can just see you thinking too much.”
“I guess I’d rather overthink than not think at all,” Hayes said.
There is only one way out of the rut, according to Hayes.
“As Dory says, ‘Just keep swimming,’ ” Hayes said. “Just keep working.”
In the 2015 Big Ten Championship game against Michigan State, Hayes stepped to the line 12 times. He made all 12 — the most free throws attempted without missing in a conference tournament game. He was 16-for-16 that tournament.
“Pressure situations were the easiest ones,” Hayes said. “Pressure situations were the great ones. You go up it’s like all right, it’s winning time.”
Against Iowa, Happ missed a pair with 30.5 seconds and UW leading by one. If he made both, Jordan Bohannon’s 3-pointer with less than 10 seconds left means overtime, not UW’s fifth loss in six games.
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“It is still a matter of what you do when the lights are on and when it really counts, when it’s on the scoreboard,” Gard said. “He is working at it. He feels awful about it. I feel bad for him. It is who he is. He understands it. He works at it. … But he hasn’t been able to make the progress he needs to make.”
It was a different tone than what Gard used several days earlier after a win over Maryland. Gard said he didn’t lose sleep over struggles from the line at the time. He did, however, offer a joke to demonstrate the exacerbation.
“Pretty soon, we’re going to end up looking like the locker room from Major League,” Gard said. “We’re going to have the candles and the oils and all the garlic around our neck. Hey, just step to the line and make the free throws.”
Not all Badgers struggle from the line. Senior guard Bronson Koenig shoots at a 91.1 percent (51-for-56) and fifth-year senior Zak Showalter makes 82.2 percent of his attempts (37-of-45). The next most attempts from the line come from sophomore Khalil Iverson, who shoots at just a 54.8 percent clip (23-for-42).
Iverson said he always had difficulty with free throws because of lack of arc on his shot. But free throw success might be contagious, Iverson said.
“I definitely feel that’s the case,” Iverson said. “With guys that get there to the line frequently, like [Hayes] and [Happ], you know if we see those guys start hitting the majority of their free throws it will definitely trickle down and give everyone else confidence when they step up to the line.”
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The coaching staff is well aware free-throw shooting is a thorn in the side as the NCAA Tournament approaches.
“They’re struggling in a big way and having a hard time finding something they can go to and rely on to get it back,” UW associate head coach Lamont Paris said.
Has he noticed anything? Other than the fact that the duo’s confidence is clearly shaken?
“Yeah I have,” Paris said sarcastically. “And I didn’t say anything on purpose so they would keep doing this.”
It’s not for lack of volume of attempted shots, Paris claimed. UW shoots more free throws during practice than any team in the nation.
“Sometimes people struggle with free throws,” Paris said. “These are not 90 percent lifetime free throw shooters that have some sort of thing and now they’re shooting 45. These guys have always at some level struggled with free throws — have shot them better than this, for sure, but they’re struggling for them, especially.”
Somebody somewhere would have made a lot of money by now for creating a solution to free throw woes.
“If it was easy to do, then DeAndre Jordan would have shot better,” Paris said. “Shaq would have shot better. There’s a hundred guys in the NBA that don’t shoot well.”
Senior forward Vitto Brown said he stays away from giving advice because there’s enough people in their ears to begin with.
“They already know their free throws need work,” Brown said. “Anything that I would add has probably already been said.”
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No matter how hard they work during, before and even after practice, the improvements have to show up when the lights shine brightest, assistant coach Howard Moore said.
“They’re making over 70 percent in practice,” Moore said. “But it’s gotta translate to the game.”
UW tries to wear them out in practice and make them practice to shadow fatigue. But there’s no way to simulate an arena atmosphere on a Tuesday afternoon practice.
“We can’t just bus 17,000 people into practice,” Moore said.
Moore said the technical aspect of it is no longer the issue, rather the block occurs from the neck up. Whatever struggles persist come tournament time, it won’t be for lack of effort.
“Guys have gotta be able to step up and knock them down,” Moore said. “I know they’ll be able to do that moving forward. They’re putting too much work into it.”