SHOOTING MOST FOUL
Bounce, bounce, bounce...thud. That has been the routine at foul lines across the country this season. The Division I free-throw-shooting percentage has declined in each of the past five years, and this season players arc connecting on only 66.8% of their foul shots, the lowest since 1957-58. There's no way to quantify just how far off the mark the players have been, but doesn't it seem that more and more of the misses are bricks?
Some of the nation's best teams have had episodes of horrid foul shooting. Indiana might still be undefeated if it had shot a tad better than four of 13 in a 74-69 loss to Kansas and 18 for 36 in an 81-78 loss to Kentucky. Even usually reliable Duke missed 11 straight against Oklahoma. And on it goes.
It has gotten so bad that Idaho coach Larry Eustachy has installed several plays that begin with his team rebounding its own missed foul shot. "We might as well try and rebound missed free throws, because we get plenty of them," says Eustachy, whose Vandals were shooting 60.8% from the line at week's end.
Why can't any of these guys shoot straight anymore? Everyone has an idea, which is another way of saying no one really knows. Here are a few theories:
•Lack of practice. The most commonly held belief is that players just don't practice free throw shooting enough. "I wonder if players are more interested in developing a finger roll than a shooting touch," says LSU coach Dale Brown. Says Manchester (Ind.) College coach Steve Afford, who was an 89.8% foul shooter during his career at Indiana, "When players practice today, everyone wants to either dunk or shoot a three-pointer."
•Emphasis on athleticism. "We always go for the athletes rather than for shooters nowadays," says Virginia Commonwealth coach Sonny Smith. "We'll take an athlete even if he can't throw it in the ocean from the beach."
•The NCAA's two-year-old rule limiting practice time to 20 hours a week. Coaches love to cite this one, but of course, coaches tend to believe restrictions on practice time are responsible for the national debt. Oklahoma coach Billy Tubbs might have a point, though, when he says, "How do you expect to see a better product when you take away practice time?"
Louisville's players (64.6% from the line) work with a sports psychologist who urges them to visualize being good free throw shooters for 10 minutes a day (which presumably doesn't count against the 20 hours a week). A better solution might be to have players who are shooting less than 70% try 100 free throws a day.
One of the fiercest rivalries in the country is developing in the Great Midwest Conference between Cincinnati and Memphis State. Plenty of pregame intrigue surrounded their latest meeting, a 68-66 Tiger win last Saturday in Memphis that ended the fourth-ranked Bearcats' 14-game winning streak.
When Cincy arrived in Memphis, a group of fans was waiting at the airport, ready to heckle Cincinnati coach Bob Huggins because he had described the Tigers' student section a few days earlier as "the most obnoxious people in America." Anticipating the reception, the Bearcats went backdoor on the fans by boarding a bus on the tarmac and going straight to the hotel.
Even so, the Bearcats, who were 17-2 at week's end, seem to thrive on ugly confrontations, especially among themselves. Blowups between Huggins and his players are not unusual. "We're like a family that yells and screams sometimes but never forgets that they love each other," says senior forward Erik Martin, who was part of the Bearcats' best-known run-in to date. It occurred during the first half of a Jan. 30 game against DePaul, when he and Huggins had words and Martin was sent to the locker room. On his way Martin peeled off his jersey and flung it to the ground. On some teams that would have been cause for a suspension. Martin was back on the court in the second half.
Against the Tigers, Cincinnati trailed by 13 points in the second half before rallying to take a one-point lead with 5:14 left. But 27 points from Billy Smith helped Memphis State, which improved to 14-7 with the Win, survive a poor shooting night (two for 10) by its star, Anfernee Hardaway. Still, you get the feeling that the Bearcats are a team to keep an eye on, for their actions on and off the court.
TRIUMPH AND TRAGEDY
Iowa, which has played valiantly since the death of forward Chris Street in a Jan. 19 car accident, isn't this season's only team to have made an emotional comeback following the death of a player. Pablo Coto, a 6'5" senior forward for Division III Marymount University of Arlington, Va., died of heart failure on Jan. 25 during a game against Goucher College. Coto suffered from an undetected case of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM), a thickening of the muscle wall between the chambers of the heart. In its first game after Coto's death, unranked Marymount went on the road and beat No. 16 York 72-66. "Pablo was a coach's dream," said Saint coach Webb Hatch, who phoned Iowa coach Tom Davis to ask for advice on how to help his players handle the death.
There was hugging, but not much affection, when Memphis State met archrival Cincinnati.
PLAYERS OF THE WEEK
Idaho's Orlando Lightfoot, a 6'7" junior forward, had 21 points and 15 rebounds in a 97-76 win over Idaho State and 44 points (a school record) and 17 boards in a 107-96 double-OT defeat of Boise State.
Heidi Gillingham, Vanderbilt's 6'10" junior center, made 21 of 23 shots en route to scoring 45 points in Commodore victories over No. 18 Western Kentucky (62-59) and Arkansas (80-59).
Antwan Stallworth, a 6'5" senior center for Division II Southern Illinois at Edwardsville, had 75 points and 34 rebounds in defeats of Lewis, Quincy and Indiana University-Purdue University-Indianapolis.