As we prepare to enter March Madness, it remains one of basketball's enduring mysteries.
How can so many highly skilled athletes, standing 15 feet away from the basket with no one guarding them, struggle so mightily to make their free throws, especially when these same athletes often can fire in three-point shots and throw down dunks with opponents hanging all over them?
It's not an idle question. Making free throws often is the critical difference in a game, and will become all the more vital in the NCAA tournament, when launching bricks can send a team home for good.
So what is the answer to the foul shooting challenge? The experts say it consists of one part skill, one part practice, one part physics and one part psychology.
It's the latter explanation that University of Pittsburgh center Aaron Gray gravitates to when he tries to explain his own mystifying statistics. This year, the 7-footer hit nearly 60 percent of his field goal attempts during the regular season, but only 55 percent of his foul shots.
"If you talk to my coaches and teammates," he said, "they'll tell you I'm really not a bad foul-shooter." In fact, at one recent practice, Gray said, he was determined not to quit until he had hit 100 foul shots, and it took him only 112 attempts to do that, which works out to an 89 percent average.
"But when I'm in a game, for me, it becomes a mental thing. When I'm on the floor and I'm around the basket, I'm in the rhythm of the game, and I have so much confidence in myself.
"At the foul line, though, you're not in the flow of the game and you're not in the rhythm of the game. You're interrupted."
His foul shooting woes are frustrating for Gray, who was 8 of 20 in the final three games of the regular season, although he manages to keep a sense of humor about it. "When they told me you wanted to talk to me about foul shooting, I thought, 'What next? Is he going to interview Levance about dunking?' "
Levance Fields is Pitt's 5-foot-10 point guard, and he's as apt to dunk the ball as he is to miss a foul shot: he's 80 percent from the free-throw line this year.
But even Fields is not in the same league as Sean Miller, the Xavier University coach and Pitt's all-time free-throw leader, who holds the single-season record of 91.4 percent, set in 1988-89.
Miller is convinced that foul-shooting accuracy is a combination of skill and practice. The reason most other good shooters couldn't match his free-throw percentage, Miller said, is that, by the time he got to college, "they owed me about 100,000 practice shots. I shot 100 foul shots a day in high school, sometimes 200 a day. When you start adding that up, it makes a huge difference."
All that practice hard-wired foul shooting into his brain, Miller said. "I never shoot the ball anymore, but if I walked out to the foul line today, I believe it would be difficult for me to make fewer than 90 out of 100 shots."
A.J. Graves, the Butler University guard who has led the NCAA for most of this season with a 96-percent foul shooting mark, agreed with Miller.
"It's just constant muscle memory" from endless repetition, Graves said. "I've stuck with the same thing probably since fourth grade.
"No one's guarding you. It's up to you to put it in the hole. So you might as well do it. It's the easiest thing possible, I think."
But not for everyone, Miller said. If a player hasn't acquired good foul-shooting skills by the time he reaches college, it is much harder to turn him around.
At the college level, Miller said, good free-throw shooting teams probably reflect the players the coaching staff has recruited, more than what the coaches do in practice.
Still, Miller takes foul shooting very seriously in practice, and Xavier ranks second to Duquesne in free-throw accuracy in the Atlantic 10. At every home game practice, he said, each player must shoot 100 foul shots, scattered throughout the session. Coaches keep track of what percentage they make, and players are not allowed to talk during free throws.
Xavier's 74 percent free-throw average contrasts sharply with Pitt's 67 percent team average, and the two teams neatly bracket the national average of about 69 percent, which has existed in men's basketball for several years.
Women fit same norms
Women's basketball statistics in the NCAA haven't been kept for as long, but women's teams average 68 percent on free- throw conversions.
The averages suggest that certain statistical norms are at work, which makes perfect sense to John J. Fontanella, a physics professor at the U.S. Naval Academy.
Fontanella, a foul-shooting whiz for Westminster College during his playing years, wrote a book last year titled "The Physics of Basketball."
He has concluded that the key to success in free throws is the shooter's angle of release. For shorter players, the angle should be 51 degrees, for taller players, 49 degrees.
Launching a free throw at those angles, he said, ensures it will arrive at the basket at the slowest possible speed, about 11 mph, which will enhance its chances of going through the hoop if it hits the backboard or rim.
It also helps the ball "see" as much of the hoop as possible, Fontanella said.
If the 9-inch-diameter basketball had eyes, it would see the 18-inch-diameter hoop as perfectly round only if it were coming straight down -- that is, at a 90 degree angle.
To achieve that, though, a player would have to shoot the ball almost straight up, with too much force and too little margin of error, Fontanella said.
The angles he recommends are a good compromise, and still allow the basketball to see most of the hoop's circle.
If the ball is launched on an arc that's too flat, he said, it will see the hoop as a thin line or a very shallow dish, which is one reason why Miami Heat center Shaquille O'Neal makes fewer than half his foul shots.
If the free throw is shot with proper form, he said, it also will spin backward as it approaches the basket. This not only helps the ball drop through the hoop if it hits the rear of the rim, but also creates something called the Magnus force, which gives the ball some extra lift as it arcs through the air.
"Using my approach," Fontanella said, "there is no excuse for a player hitting fewer than 85 percent of his foul shots."
Herb Livsey, who ran the legendary Snow Valley Basketball School in California for 41 years, said he was able to create 80 percent free-throw shooters with his "lock, load, look and lift" method.
First, a player has to stand at the same spot just behind the foul line each time, with the foot on the same side as the shooting hand slightly advanced, which frees up the shoulder motion on that side.
Next, the ball should be lifted just above the armpit, creating a V between the thumb and forefinger. The player should look at the metal plate that attaches the rim to the backboard. Finally, the player should lift with the legs and raise the shooting arm as though reaching out of the top of a telephone booth, and then "wave goodbye" with a flick of the wrist.
"Every shot you take in the game of basketball has to come from the legs," Livsey said, and the reason many tall players have trouble with free throws is that they stand too erect as they shoot.
To overcome that, he has sometimes asked big men to shoot foul shots from the three-point line, because it forces them to use their legs more.
Gary Boren, who coaches foul shooting for the NBA Dallas Mavericks, agrees, and says many big men compound their problems by falling back on their heels as they shoot, counteracting the forward motion of the ball.
But that's not inevitable, he said. In a recent six-year stretch under Boren's coaching, the Mavs finished first in free-throw percentage three times and no lower than fifth among 16 playoff teams.
Bill Van Gundy, a basketball instructional book author and father of NBA coaches Stan and Jeff Van Gundy, said part of the challenge with free throws today may be related to the broader problem of modern players' becoming weaker at midrange shots of all sorts, 12 to 15 feet out from the basket.
"With some of our very skilled players, they take the ball to the basket to dunk it or they throw it up from behind the 3-point line a lot of the time, and I think some of them simply do not practice foul shooting as much as they should."
If foul shooting is becoming a chronic problem, why doesn't every NBA team hire a foul-shooting coach like Boren?
"That's a very good question," he said.
"In a typical game, 20 percent of all points are foul shots," Boren said, so it pays to be good at them.
"We're not saving lives here, but basketball's an entertainment exercise, and if you, as a fan, are sitting out in the stands, and you've paid $60 for a ticket and the guy on the court is making a couple million dollars, and he can't hit a foul shot, that's not good."Matt Freed, Post-Gazette
Pitt's Aaron Gray, who makes a bit more than half his free-throw attempts, lines up a shot against West Virginia on Feb 27. Pitt won 80-66.
Click photo for larger image.
Making a good free throw
Here are the figures, compiled by Gary Johnson, associate director of statistics at the NCAA.
University of Florida: 2006 national champion, 74.4 percent free-throw percentage, 34th out of 326 teams in Division I
University of North Carolina: 2005 champion, 72.5 percent, 54th team out of 326
University of Connecticut: 2004 champion, 62.3 percent, 312th team out of 326
Syracuse University: 2003 champion, 69.4 percent, 163rd team of 325
University of Maryland: 2002 champion, 72.6 percent, 55th team of 321 M
Mark Roth can be reached at email@example.com or at 412-263-1130.