Smile Politely

Free Throes: Future of the Charity Stripe

John Calipari sits on a beach somewhere, frenetically thumbing a Blackberry; oblivious to the crashing waves, the gulls, the delightful salty breeze. The summer recruiting season opened this weekend. Family, friends and ice cold bottles of Corona don’t stand a chance of getting Cal’s attention.

Last week, he was forbidden from calling recruits, because the first half of June is a period when the NCAA wants kids to do other things besides talking to coaches — final exams, perhaps.

But a Blackberry addiction is a hard thing to break. So maybe Calipari spent that time texting current players. Maybe he was keeping it real with street agents. Maybe he promised someone’s AAU coach a job at FedEx.

If he were to lay off the electric devices for a moment, he might be forced into contemplation. He might have to revisit a dark, fundamental question: Are free-throws important?

Missed free-throws and Calipari will be synonymous for some time.

First, Calipari cavalierly dismissed the importance of free throws to a national audience. That must have made the oracles and soothsayers mad. Karma also took notice. The combined forces of all that is superstitious and jinx-ridden saw fit to propel the Tigers to the last minute of the national championship game before exacting their merciless revenge: The worst free-throwing team in the country choked up a national title by missing three of four in the last 20 seconds of regulation. Even their best shooter, Chris Douglas-Roberts, clanged two with 16.8 seconds to go.

It’s lucky for Calipari, Douglas-Roberts and locally, Shaun Pruitt, that Achilles took one for the team, for teams everywhere, millennia ago. Yes, Spike Lee will continue to elicit mock pleas for Doctor Heimlich’s maneuver — but when a team chokes on its weakness, people will drag Achilles’ name through the dirt again, rather than saying of a losing pitcher, “Yessir, a hanging curveball — that’s his Douglas-Roberts shortarm.”

About a captured serial killer, no one will say, “he couldn’t resist leaving one little clue at each murder scene — that was his Calipari’s free-throw.”

Failure isn’t such a bad thing when somebody else bears the brunt of the metaphor.

Since Pruitt’s moment of ignominy — missing free-throws at the end of the first half, at the end of regulation, and at the end of overtime in a loss to fervently hated Indiana and EJ Gordon — it’s been suggested that the Illinois coaching staff require the team to practice free-throws. A lot. In fact, Coach Bruce Weber said they had their best line performance when they stopped practicing them entirely.

He may have an even trickier card up his sleeve.

I dropped in on the Illinois Team Camp last weekend, and watched entire high school teams ignore free-throws for entire games!

I stood next to all the Huge Recruits you’ve heard about — the ones that revitalized Bruce Weber’s reputation. I watched them play games, along with their high school teams. I am stunned to report that these games did not feature traditional free-throw shooting.

Instead, from what I hear, they shot free-throws at the end of games — soccer style, to determine penalty points. (I wouldn’t know, because I never stayed for the end of games — instead moving from room to room to catch some of each game.)

Is this an indication of ennui for free-throw shooting? Stuck at the end, the penalty round might take on added significance, but it replicates nothing of the psychological or staminal aspects, the enervation or enfeeblement that makes some players clutch, and others useless.

And what if one team is hugely more violent than another? In that case, they’ll lead by 20 when the penalty shot phase arrives. Is that good? Would dog-tired, beat-up teams overcome 20 point deficits at the charity stripe?

No player was disqualified by fouls at the Team Camp. Is that good policy? Does it help develop players’ skills? Or is it teaching thuggery to the young charges? Why practice a style that doesn’t translate to games? Does it teach bad tendencies? Maybe I’m silly for questioning the decision. If not practicing free-throws leads to free-throw success, perhaps not calling fouls in practice will translate to fewer calls in games.

Don’t get me wrong, I think aggressive fouling and Hack-a-Shaq are valuable strategies. They’ll be even more valuable when the skill of free-throw shooting is completely eradicated.

So far, the Weber Administration has proved too . . . ethical? . . . to use a hack-an-anybody strategy. Not that they lack the bodies. Guys like Richard Semrau, C.J. Jackson and Fred Nkemdi might have enjoyed the PT, and a sense of purpose. (Probably not Chris Hicks, though. He’s too nice to go Nehemiah Ingram on a brother.)

I think Weber will probably have to choose one strategy or the other — either recruit teams that can hit from the stripe, or teams that can and do beat the living crap out of the other teams. I think he’ll choose the former — he’s an honorable man.

And speaking of Nehemiah Ingram, I wonder if his old coach, John Chaney, is ever going to get around to kicking Calipari’s ass.

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