Venezuelan game pays off for Hogs at the line

By: Bob Holt
Published: Thursday, February 18, 2021
Arkansas forward Jaylin Williams (10) shoots a free throw against Florida during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Fayetteville, Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021. (AP Photo/Michael Woods)
Arkansas forward Jaylin Williams (10) shoots a free throw against Florida during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Fayetteville, Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021. (AP Photo/Michael Woods)

FAYETTEVILLE — Clutch free-throw shooting has been a key to the University of Arkansas basketball team extending its SEC winning streak to seven games.

Thank the Venezuelan National Team.

Arkansas Coach Eric Musselman said the Razorbacks have benefited from a drill — which they use this season at the end of practice to simulate the pressure of hitting free throws late in games — that he picked up while coaching the Venezuelan National Team from 2011-13.

The No. 24 Razorbacks have hit 83.5% (66 of 79) of their free throws over the past four games, including 15 of 19 in beating Florida 75-64 on Tuesday night in Walton Arena.

Arkansas hit 10 of 12 free throws in the final 1:36 to hold off the Gators.

Razorbacks freshman guard Moses Moody has hit 18 of 20 free throws in the last five games; senior guard Jalen Tate is 11 of 13 in the last four games; senior forward Justin Smith is 8 of 11 in the last three games; and freshman guard Davonte Davis is 8 of 8 in the last four games.

Hot Shots

If the Arkansas Razorbacks maintain their current free-throw accuracy of 74.8%, it will be only the 10th time since the UA media guide lists season-by-season statistics going back to the 1951-52 season that a team has shot higher than 74%. Here is a rundown:

Season: FT%, FTs Made-FTs Attempted

1961-62: 77.6%, 502-647

2016-17: 76.1%, 628-825

1965-66: 75.0%, 411-548

1977-78: 74.9%, 585-781

2020-21: 74.8%, 333-445*

1964-65: 74.7%, 432-578

1962-63: 74.6%, 434-582

1960-61: 74.5%, 428-574

1959-60: 74.3%, 508-684

1991-92: 74.1%, 604-815

*-Through 22 games

Arkansas (17-5, 9-4 SEC) has raised its free-throw shooting on the season to 74.8% to rank third in the SEC behind LSU (76.4%) and Florida (75%).

In SEC play, Arkansas has been even better. The Razorbacks have hit 76.6% of their free throws in conference games to rank second behind Auburn (77.1.%).

If the Razorbacks maintain their current pace, it will be only the 10th time in the past 69 seasons that they have shot 74% or higher.

According to statistics in the Arkansas media guide that go back to the 1951-52 season, the Razorbacks’ best free-throw shooting was 77.6% during the 1961-62 season when Tommy Boyer — now a member of the UA Board of Trustees — shot 93.3% (125 of 134) to lead the nation.

The only other season Arkansas shot better than 75% was in 2016-17 when the Razorbacks hit 76.1%, thanks primarily to Dusty Hannahs at 90.8% (108 of 119) and Daryl Macon at 86.6% (136 of 157).

Musselman credits the practice drill he added this season with helping the Razorbacks focus on their free-throw shooting.

“We do a drill that these guys probably are so sick of,” Musselman said after Arkansas shot 20 of 23 at Missouri on Saturday. “Every time at the end of practice we have a free-throw game that I picked up when I was with the Venezuelan National Team, and these guys absolutely hate it.

“It’s a free-throw pressure game that sometimes takes us quite a bit of time to finish practice up. But it has really, really helped us from the foul line.”

Moody said the drill starts with two or three players spreading out on the six goals on the practice court.

“Everybody goes around, and you have to hit one and then the next person has to hit the second one and then the third one, and we go all the way up to eight,” Moody said. “Then [going back down to] seven, then six [to zero].

“So it’s a lot of pressure on each and every shot.”

If the Razorbacks miss free throws in the drill, they have to do push-ups and run sprints.

“And if we’re not making them, we’ll be there all night,” Moody said. “I promise you.”

Arkansas hit 5 of 6 free throws in the final 1:51 at Kentucky, including two makes by Tate with 4.3 seconds left for the game-winning points after the Wildcats had taken an 80-79 lead.

The Razorbacks hit 5 of 6 free throws in the final 1:53 of overtime at Missouri, with Moody hitting 4 of 4 — including two with 13.6 seconds left to clinch the victory.

“I don’t even think I was watching when he shot,” Musselman said. “Because I just assumed he was making them both.”

Moody is shooting 82.4% (89 of 108), including 85.9% in SEC games (55 of 64).

Smith, who is shooting 61.2% (30 of 49), hit 6 of 7 at Missouri. Tate, at 67.3% (35 of 52), was 5 of 5 at Kentucky.

“We’re just putting ourselves in that late-game situation,” Moody said. “Which really comes back to help like [Tate] did [at Kentucky], like I did late [at Missouri], and like Justin [at Missouri]. We’ve been there before.”

After Tate made his first of two free throws to tie the Kentucky game 80-80, Wildcats Coach John Calipari called timeout. He couldn’t ice Tate.

“It was funny, because Jalen said, ‘After I make this free throw, make sure we get into what we work on every day,’ which is our prevent defense,” Musselman said. “Because we’re supposed to match up full court right away and react immediately upon a ball going through the net.

“So I think his ability to coach the team and remind them to be in our prevent, and the confidence that he had to say that I’m going to make the shot and then we’re going to get into prevent was pretty unique in a college timeout.”

Arkansas junior guard JD Notae is shooting 78.3% (65 of 83).

“JD told Coach [Anthony] Ruta he felt more pressure in our free-throw shooting game post-practice than he did in a game,” Musselman said. “That’s what you try to simulate.”

Among other Razorbacks, sophomore forward Connor Vanover is shooting 95.2% (20 of 21), junior guard Desi Sills 70.3% (45 of 64), Davis 75% (18 of 24) and freshman forward Jaylin Williams 80% (16 of 20).

“At times we struggle with the game that we play at the end of practice, but sometimes we do very well,” Davis said. “For sure it’s helped out a lot.”

Musselman said he came up with the drill because the Venezuelan National Team struggled from the line.

“We weren’t very good free-throw shooters,” he said. “I wanted to try to put pressure on the players.”

Moody said he’s glad Musselman uses the drill with the Razorbacks.

“When we’re in an end-game situation, I feel like I’ve been there before,” Moody said. “Every day, almost.”

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