MADISON - For the last four years, free throws have meant free points for the Wisconsin Badgers. The Badgers led the Big Ten in free throw percentage two years in a row during the 2009-2010 and 2010-2011 seasons, and they almost broke the NCAA record for free throw shooting in the latter.
In fact, the Badgers haven't finished below third place in the Big Ten in free throw shooting since the 2007-2008 season, where they finished fifth, and they've been in the top half of the league in each year since the 2006-2007 season.
That's a solid foundation for any team, and when the Badgers returned three starters with dependable free throw shots in Ryan Evans, Jared Berggren, and Mike Bruesewitz, there was no reason to think this Bo Ryan-coached team would be any less effective at the charity stripe.
Evans, Berggren, and Bruesewitz all entered the year at or above 70 percent from the line for their careers, which makes the Badgers' terrible performance on free throws this year all the more inexplicable. As a team the Badgers are shooting just 61 percent from the line this season, and a 7-for-18 performance against No. 13 Michigan State came back to bite the Badgers as they fell 49-47 at home in the Kohl Center.
The remarkable drop off has the coaching staff and players baffled, but the general consensus is there isn't much they can do except keep practicing and hope the shots start falling again.
"We've been a good free throw shooting team," assistant coach Gary Close said Thursday. "Some of the guys we've had have been good free throw shooters in the past. I think it's a combination of a couple things. If they get in a situation where they start making a few in a row then it could turn around in a hurry."
Evans' drop-off has definitely been the most head scratching. The 6-foot-6 senior forward entered the season with a 71 percent mark on free throws during his career, but his rate this season has bottomed out to just 39 percent. Ryan said earlier in the season that he can't yell or force a player into getting those free throws to fall, and Close says the ways to help get a player out of that kind of slump really depend on the individual player.
"If they're shooting it the way they normally shoot it and they have a streak of bad luck then you just kind of let them shoot their way out of it," Close said. "If it's something that might be significant, then you might do some things on the side."
And while fellow seniors like Bruesewitz and Berggren have been hitting more free throws than Evans, both players are a little off of their career percentages. Bruesewitz said that at this point in the year a bad-shooting streak can get into a player's head and keep them from succeeding,
"It's a lot like golf," Bruesewitz said Thursday after practice. "If you mess up, you think about the next shot. We've just got to mentally get over it and knock stuff down."
It hasn't come from a lack of practice, either. The Badgers devote a significant portion of every practice, even up to half and hour, solely to free throw shooting, with contests and games mixed in between the forwards and the guards. But the Badgers haven't increased amount of time they spend on free throws in practice- after all, there's no way to replicate the tense end-of-game scenario that killed the Badgers against the Spartans by shooting dozens of free throws in a gym with only a handful of people around to see.
"All of the free throws in the second half of a tight game, a low scoring game they're big," Close said. "There's no question that sometimes one guy misses and it kind of feeds into the other guys. And the same thing happens the other way around. We've got to get better or it could cost us a game."
"It's been the case all year. Until you perform that pressure is out there. We've kind of dug ourselves into this hole and we'll have to dig ourselves out of it."
The Badgers don't have a lot of time to worry about their free throw woes, though. They're right in the middle of the hardest part of their schedule, with five of their next seven games coming against ranked teams in conference play.
Bruesewitz said he knows even their worst free throw shooter can make 80 percent of their shots in the gym- they'll just have to find a way to move that success back on to the court if they want to stay competitive in the Big Ten.
"It's just something we've got to fix," Bruesewitz said.