Hack-A-Cat

The game of basketball is part artistry and athleticism, and part science.  The scientific part relates to playing the percentages and game strategies are often tied to those numbers.

If a team spots a weakness of the opposing team, they will exploit it.  Basketball history is filled with examples, and I will reference just a few.

When Wilt Chamberlain ruled the court, he was truly unstoppable.  However, as great as he was, he could not for the life of him perfect the art of free throw shooting.  Teams realized that if Chamberlain or his teammates had the ball on offense late in the game, there was about a 50% chance that they would hit a field goal (2 points).  If Chamberlain were fouled, there was a 50% chance of him hitting his free throws (I point).  No different than the AT&T commercial, what is better for a defense, giving up one point or giving up two points?

So, when Chamberlain was off-the-ball, he would literally be chased around the court to be fouled.  This tarnished the last few minutes of the game so much that a rule was implemented that if a player off-the-ball was fouled in the last two minutes of the game, the offensive team was awarded two free throws and maintained possession of the ball.   As a result, Chamberlain (and those who followed him who were also “free throw challenged”) was no longer forced to play hide-and-seek.

Post-Chamberlain, we all remember the game strategy that was used during the height a Shaquille O’Neal’s career to prevent him from attempting a high percentage shot by “unintentionally” fouling him.  This approach was developed by former Dallas Maverick coach Don Nelson, and was actually devised by Nelson to be used against North Korea’s best friend, Dennis Rodman, back when he was playing with the Bulls.  The art was perfected when implemented against Shaq, and along with other examples, changed the landscape of basketball.  Presently, the practice is often implemented against Dwight Howard.

Enter the Arizona Wildcats, the nation’s 4th ranked team and one of the favorites as March Madness approaches.  The Cats are stacked with top-notch basketball players, even after the loss of Brandon Ashley.  They are athletic, powerful and skilled in all aspects of the game; well, except for one.  Entering weekend play against Utah and Colorado, the 4th ranked Cats are 297th in the nation in free throw shooting.  Yes, 297th out of 351 college programs.  They are averaging 66% as a team.   Compare that with last year’s Sweet-16 Cats, who were 24th in the country in free throw shooting, and averaged almost 75% as a team.  Their second best free thrower is Brandon Ashley at 76%, and he is out for the rest of the season.  Their 7’0” center, Kaleb Tarczewski, is their top free throw shooter at 79%, while TJ McConnell shoots only 59%, a major deficit in productivity from the point guard position.  Five-star recruits like Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (64% from the line) and Aaron Gordon (41% free throw percentage) appear to have skipped fundamentals when their games were being developed in high school.

I must note that the Cats are not the only woeful top-ranked team when it comes to free throw shooting.  With the exception of Wichita State (one of my tournament favorites) who are 28th in the country in free throw shooting, a number of other potential top seeds are “free throw shooting challenged.”  Syracuse is 152nd in the nation, followed by Kansas at 190th, Michigan State at 195thand Florida at 250th out of the 351 schools whose free throw shooting is ranked.

The PAC-12 Tournament is just a few weeks away and that is followed immediately by the big dance for the NCAA Championship.  Potential opponents are all aware of the incomparable defense and unselfish team play that Sean Miller has this team playing.  They are also most certainly aware of the bricks that are often thrown by the Cats from the charity stripe.   It will not come as a surprise if opponents in the PAC-12 Tournament and then March Madness take a page out of Don Nelson’s playbook and “Hack-A-Cat.”