Pitt coach Jamie Dixon must try to cure an epidemic of poor free-throw shooting.
By Ray Fittipaldo Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
It's probably no consolation for Pitt coach Jamie Dixon, but there are 91 teams in NCAA Division I that shoot free throws worse than the Panthers.
Yeah, that's hard to believe after the Panthers clanked their way to a 3-for-12 performance at the line in Monday night's 64-61 loss at Louisville.
The 25 percent clip lowered Pitt's season percentage to .660. This might be hard to fathom for fans who watch the Panthers on a consistent basis, but that's almost 10 percentage points higher than Louisiana-Monroe, which stands alone in last place in the NCAA statistics and, apparently, practices free throws less than the Panthers.
Pitt is on pace for its worst season at the line since 2004-05, but the Panthers are not drastically worse at the line than past seasons. The best percentage in the past seven seasons was last season's .699, and that certainly did not help the Panthers in their worst season in more than a decade.
In 2010-11, when the Panthers won the Big East regular-season championship and earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, they shot 67.1 percent from the line. In 2008-09, the year they came within a whisker of reaching the Final Four, they shot 67.7 percent.
The difference, it seems, between those seasons and this one, is the Panthers have been troubled by some untimely misses, which is drawing more attention to the problem.
Even when other Pitt teams struggled at the line, Dixon always had clutch players who could make free throws in crucial situations. Or, he had a way of getting the ball into the hands of his best shooters in the right situations.
Remember what Dixon said after the loss to Villanova in the 2009 Elite Eight game when Levance Fields stepped to the line and made two free throws with 5.5 seconds remaining to tie the score?
"I had no doubts they were going in," he said.
Clutch shooting at the line has been elusive for the Panthers this season. Tray Woodall, who is shooting 75 percent from the line, was fouled with 43 seconds remaining Monday night and had a chance to cut the deficit to one. But Woodall, a fifth-year senior, missed the front end of the one-and-one that ultimately sealed Pitt's fate.
It wasn't the first time Woodall failed to come through in a pressure situation. In the Big East opener against Cincinnati, Woodall stepped to the line with 1:30 remaining and Pitt trailing by three, and also missed the front end of a one-and-one. Pitt lost that game, 70-61.
Dixon knows the free-throw shooting is an issue and has been addressing it in practice, but to no avail.
"There's definitely no explanation for it," junior forward Lamar Patterson said. "We've been practicing. We've been running for missing. I didn't feel like our focus was there at the free-throw line. We needed big free throws late in the game and we didn't come up with them. It's something we'll learn from, and hopefully we'll make them later in the season."
Dixon said his assistant coaches chart the number of free throws his players make in practice. Invariably, the percentages are better in practice, but the Panthers have not responded well to shooting under pressure in games.
The worst offender is freshman center Steven Adams, who was 0 for 4 against Louisville and lowered his season average to 32.5 percent (14 for 43). But he's far from alone. Power forward Talib Zanna is shooting 67 percent from the line but 53 percent in conference games.
Some of the guards have been having a hard time, too. Woodall's misses have been magnified, but he is above the Division I average of 68.9 percent.
The same cannot be said for Trey Zeigler, who is shooting 52.5 percent. Cameron Wright is shooting 48 percent. Those are extremely low percentages for guards.
"Steve's shooting the ball well in practice," Dixon said. "Steve's a good shooter in practice. He's just not shooting them in games. Zeigler's been improving. We're working hard on it, but we didn't get it done [against Louisville]."
Patterson said there is a big difference between shooting well in practice when no one is watching and in a road game with 22,000 fans harassing you.
"I think we just have to focus more at the line," Patterson said. "When you're out there by yourself shooting them it's a lot easier. When we're in the game, we have to focus, settle down and knock them down."
Of course, that doesn't explain Pitt shooting almost as bad at home as in road games this season. Until the 3-for-12 performance Monday night, the Panthers actually were shooting better at the line on the road.
In the overtime loss to Marquette at Petersen Events Center, Pitt shot 50 percent (13 for 26) from the line. As was the case at Louisville, there were other problems that prevented the Panthers from winning, but they compounded their issues by shooting poorly from the line.
That has been the case in three of Pitt's four Big East losses.
In a season when the Panthers will be scrapping for an NCAA tournament berth, they might not have to shoot a better free-throw percentage, but it would help if they made a few more timely ones.