As the best free-throw shooter in Pitt basketball history, Arizona Wildcats coach Sean Miller hit 88.5 percent from the line.
The team he now coaches, the one that’s undefeated and was ranked No. 1 for an eighth consecutive week Monday, is down to 66.5 percent after making just 59.4 percent of its free throws in homecourt wins over Colorado and Utah last weekend.
But if that gulf of a discrepancy bothers Miller deep inside, he isn’t showing it.
There’s a lot of good things, obviously, about the Wildcats this season and Miller suggested that it’s possible that their aggressiveness is simply keeping them a little edgy when it’s time to focus on their shot.
“I think we’re a work in progress,” Miller said Monday, during his weekly news conference at McKale Center. “Sometimes the gift of a team is kind of a curse in the other area. So a lot of the things our teams does well — offensive rebounding and being a physical, defensive team — maybe that works against us a little bit when those players go to the foul line.”
Through their record-breaking 20-0 start, though, one thing is statistically clear: The Wildcats aren’t getting better at the line. While both guard T.J. McConnell and Kaleb Tarczewski have improved their free-throw shooting as the season has progressed, the other Wildcat regulars are largely the same or worse in Pac-12 games than they were in nonconference play.
Curiously, the Wildcats have also had generally better free-throw shooting moments on the road than at home. Arizona shot just 53.6 percent against ASU, 57.1 percent (Colorado) and 60.9 percent (Utah) from the line in their past three home games.
Where Nick Johnson sank key free throws to help UA win at San Diego State, Michigan and UCLA, the Cats had Rondae Hollis-Jefferson missing 4 of 7 against ASU, T.J. McConnell and Jordin Mayes missing the single free-throws they took against Colorado, and Aaron Gordon missing 6 of 10 against Utah on Sunday.
Even the reliable Johnson made just 7 of 11 last weekend.
All that is enough of a concern that the Wildcats recently came in during an off day to shoot 100 free throws each.
“Our guys are working at it,” Miller said. “We’ve had some really good games from the line on the road. It’s a matter of settling in. Nick has really made some really big free throws, but in the last couple of games, he’s missed a few so it’s just getting him back on track.
“Aaron is working hard at it. Sometimes you feel like it’s turning a corner, sometimes it’s not. I think it’s really mental with him. But he’s gotten better. No doubt about it. I go more on practice, how our guys shoot (in it), and we’ve improved as a team in that area.”
So does McConnell. While Gordon is shooting 45.3 percent from the line overall, and a nearly equal 45.5 percent in Pac-12 games so far, McConnell spoke optimistically about Gordon and the rest of his teammates.
“I see the free throws getting a lot better,” McConnell said. “A.G.’s a good free throw shooter. … We’re all working hard in practice, shooting 100 free throws a day. Win or lose, a game can come down to free throws.”
At the same time, it’s not all about practice. While his Pitt percentage suggests Miller didn’t slump often, on the rare occasion he did, Miller didn’t just turn to extra gym time to work it out.
Sometimes he got away from it, too.
“Little bit of both,” Miller said. “Some of it is mechanics and you’ve got to get your repetitions. But sometimes that can be overkill. We’re doing the same thing with our team, not talking about it too much, not ignoring it. We’re trying to have balance.”
There are bright spots. Not only has Johnson delivered repeatedly at the line this season, Miller said center Kaleb Tarczewski (81.0 percent in Pac-12 games) “has never shot free throws better than he is right now” and that several others are confident.
Brandon Ashley is hitting 75.9 percent in Pac-12 games and even McConnell, who struggled early in the season from the line, has made 6 of 7 in conference play.
“You just gotta have confidence and go to the line and say, ‘I’m gonna make these two free throws or this one and one,’ “ McConnell said. “I’d say it’s pretty much a mind-set.”
- Miller has advanced to the second round in the Infiniti Coaches’ Charity Challenge and if he is one of the 16 coaches who advance to the third round next month, he will earn $10,000 for the Ronald McDonald House of Southern Arizona. The final winner will win $100,000 for their charity. Fans can vote at votecoachmiller.com
- UCLA guard/forward
- Kyle Anderson
- was named the Pac-12’s Player of the Week after averaging 15.0 points, 9.5 rebounds and 7.5 assists during the Bruins’ home sweep of Stanford and California last week.