Aaron Gordon free throw

The free throw line can be a lonely place. Photo by Wildcat Universe

The NCAA tournament is upon us and the primary topic of conversation within Wildcat Universe is Arizona‘s poor free throw shooting.

Making just 6-of-16 shots in a conference tournament championship game will have that effect.

People will say, “If this team shot 70% from the line it would be undefeated!” but that’s not going to change anything. It’s like saying, “If Gabe York was 7-foot-2 he’d be the starting center!”

So how do you minimize the missed free throws so they don’t cost you any more games?

The UA has been mediocre at the line all year but the 37.5% against UCLA was particularly dreadful. What went wrong?

Aaron Gordon making only made 2-of-8 attempts jumps out. He makes 43.5% of free throws on the season which is an average of 3.5 makes per 8 attempts so 1.5 points were left on the table.

Nick Johnson was only 1-for-3 from the line against UCLA, including missing the front end of a one-and-one. If he makes that and shoots his season percentage (76.9%) that’s 3-of-4 for the game.

Kaleb Tarczewski (75.8%) didn’t have any free throw attempts on Saturday.

So if Johnson shoots his average and you take four attempts away from Gordon and give them to Tarczewski who then shoots his average, you end up with 10-for-17 (58.8%) from the line and four extra points for the UA in a four-point loss.

In summary: Gordon shot too many free throws, Tarczewski didn’t shoot enough and Johnson didn’t make his. Reverse that and you have the formula for the NCAA tournament.

Here’s a very telling stat: Against Pac-12 opponents Arizona went 2-3 when Gordon attempted eight or more free throws in a game and 15-1 when he didn’t.

This means A) If Gordon is getting fouled you have to run the offense through someone else, and B) It’s shocking that no team has committed to a Hack-a-Gord strategy yet.

So if you can’t initiate offense with your second-leading scorer, your third-leading scorer is injured and your fourth-leading scorer is a non-ball-handling center, what do you do at the end of games?

You give the ball to Nick Johnson and he has to make free throws.

Yes, that’s a lot of pressure to put on one guy but with the Pac-12 Player of the Year award comes The Man status. Basketball is certainly a team sport and Arizona is in this position because of its unselfish play but the rules of the game say only one person can have the ball at a time.

When you’re standing at the free throw line with the game hanging in the balance it doesn’t matter how good your teammates are.

What was more concerning about the UCLA game was the Bruins’ offensive explosion in the first half. We have seen Arizona missing free throws all year but the Cats had not been lit up like that (43 points on 58% shooting) in a long time. If the Wildcats want to get to Dallas that cannot happen again. This team will not win any shootouts in the tournament.

Play Arizona-style lock-down defense, rebound like mad, hit some shots and free throw shooting won’t matter.

But if it does matter? Put the ball in The Man’s hands and make sure he’s wearing his Superman cape.

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