GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida is tied for 36th nationally in free-throw shooting through two games, hitting on 78.6 percent of its attempts so far. In and of itself, that’s not a superlative statistic.
But for a Gators team that ranked an abysmal 323rd in that category last season while shooting a woeful 64.7 percent from the less-than-charitable stripe, it’s a significant development that can’t be overstated.
“It’s a big factor for us. It kept us out of the NCAA tournament last year, single-handedly,” coach Mike White said this week. “And hopefully this year we continue shooting it like this.”
White is also quick to note that he isn’t ready to draw any conclusions just yet. He’s cautiously optimistic the Gators (2-0) will maintain their newfound comfort at the line as they take on St. Bonaventure (1-0) on Thursday night in Lakeland, Fla.
“Again, you’re knocking on wood. You hope that moving forward we continue to be in the same mindset. I’m not sure it’s fixed. I don’t want to sit here and think we’re a great free throw shooting team,” White said. “But what we’ve seen the first two games is actually what we’ve been in practice. You want that to continue, of course. Our guys are in a pretty good place.”
More interesting is how Florida got to this point with essentially the same cast of players that struggled so significantly with free throws last year.
Point guard Kasey Hill, who hit 53.8 percent from the line last season (71 of 132) is 7 of 10 so far. Forward Kevarrius Hayes, who made just 47.5 percent (28 of 59), is 5 of 6 to this point. Center John Egbunu, who hit 53.2 percent last season (92 of 173), is 3 of 4 in limited opportunities thus far. And forward Justin Leon, who was at 46.2 percent (12 of 26), is 2 of 2 in an even smaller sample size.
“We talked a lot about it being mental and physical and, from a physical standpoint, we as a staff and guys were open-minded enough to change, tweak if you will, a couple guys’ shots in terms of their technique,” White said. “So there’s a physical side to it, and then the mental side. We’ve seen a sports psychologist. We’ve had a guy come in and meet with a few of our guys and it’s put them in a pretty good place.”
White said he had a few people reach out to him the second half of last season to suggest that a sports psychologist could make an impact on the free-throw shooting issue. He was reluctant at that time to do something so drastic, not knowing how his guys would respond to such a tactic.
Once the season was over, though, he was open to any suggestions that could potentially offer a solution.
“I was approached by a couple different people mid-to-late last season. And I didn’t want it to become more mental than it already was. We were struggling so bad at the foul line,” White said. “We tried to infuse confidence in our guys in different ways, through trial and error — a bunch of error there — tons of reps in practice, of course. We tried to shoot a bunch of free throws under duress while winded, putting team accountability pressure on our guys. It helped to a certain extent, but I guess late in the year circling back, (it) was probably just proposed by different guys. I know sports psychology is becoming more and more popular really in all sports and I definitely have a ton of respect for it and need to learn way more about it than I do now.”
Hill, Egbunu and Leon were the main players with whom the sports psychologist addressed ways to improve their mental approach at the foul line, White said.
Leon explained the process this week and the areas of emphasis involved.
“He was like telling me about this hype number. I’ve got to stay, out of scale to like 1 to 10, find my hype meter and mine was like 3 to 6. He was telling me how I have to be a 6 on defense and a 3 on offense because you can’t move too fast,” Leon said. “He was giving me a lot of different breathing patterns and certain points throughout the day that probably would kind of like get me too amped. I had to bring myself down. So that’s really been working for me.”
Leon scored a career-high 17 points Sunday night against Mercer, making both of his free throw attempts in the process.
And, as mentioned, there were some old school techniques employed by White and his staff as well, like having certain players shoot free throws at the end of practices with the rest of the team watching, prepared to run sprints if the shots didn’t fall. That has continued.
During one preseason practice opened to the media, there was quite a bit of running before Hill eventually ended it with back-to-back successful free throws.
“We had a practice where sometimes guys just couldn’t hit and we just kept running,” Leon acknowledged.
So far this season the Gators are off and running with an impressive 2-0 start, but there haven’t been any true pressure moments at the line as they’ve won both games by lopsided margins.
It is certainly far too soon to draw any conclusions. But progress is progress.
“Knock on wood we continue shooting it this way,” White said. “We have in practice, so we just hope we continue to see that carry over. Guys, I think you can see it in their body language, are a little more confident at the foul line.”