Bob Holt is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of the University of Missouri, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and a voter for the Heisman Trophy and AP Top 25 basketball poll. Holt has been awarded Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year four times.
Hogs doing damage at the foul line
Arkansas forward Jaylin Williams (10) shoots a free throw against Texas A&M during an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Jan. 22, 2022, in Fayetteville, Ark. (AP Photo/Michael Woods)
FAYETTEVILLE — The Arkansas Razorbacks beat South Carolina 75-59 last week without hitting a three-point basket for the first time in 1,092 games over 33 seasons.
When a team makes 27 of 33 free throws as the University of Arkansas did against the Gamecocks, three-pointers can become optional.
The Razorbacks’ advantage in free throws was especially impactful because the Gamecocks hit 12 of 24.
Arkansas leads the nation in free throws made with 332 and its 447 attempts are second behind Iona’s 456 with both teams playing 19 games.
Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, in 21 games, is second nationally in made free throws with 323.
The Razorbacks have capitalized on their free opportunities by hitting 74.3% to lead the SEC.
“They’ve found something that’s working,” said Joe Kleine, an All-Southwest Conference center at Arkansas who is now a game analyst for the SEC Network. “They’re not making it complicated.”
This is the seventh time in Arkansas Coach Eric Musselman’s seven seasons as a college head coach his team is among the top 25 nationally in free throws made and attempted according to UA media notes.
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Musselman’s Nevada team was first in free throws made (717) and second in attempts (969) during the 2015-16 season when the Wolf Pack finished 24-14. Last season Arkansas was second in makes (501) and fourth in attempts (677) in finishing 25-7.
“The free throws attempted has always been a big part of our philosophy,” Musselman said. “Because when you draw free throws attempted, number one it can put foul trouble on the opposition. Number two, it allows your defense to get set.
“You’re not facing as many transition situations when you get a high volume of FTAs.”
Arkansas’ average of 17.5 made free throws represents 22.1% of its total scoring average of 79.2 points to rank 15th nationally.
The Razorbacks are 13th in the SEC in shooting 29.2% on three-pointers.
“I like the fact that since they’re not a three-point shooting team, they don’t keep trying to put a round peg in a square hole,” Kleine said. “They’ve started driving the ball more and embracing that as their identity, and that’s why they’re getting to the free throw line so much.
“That’s good coaching and it’s smart by the players. It certainly has helped them turn things around.”
The Razorbacks (14-5, 4-3 SEC) have won four consecutive games and made 81 of 102 free throws in beating Missouri, LSU, South Carolina and Texas A&M.
“We just wanted to do what we do and stick to the game plan, which was attack the rim,” Arkansas senior guard JD Notae said after the South Carolina game. “And if the threes fall they fall, but if not, our identity is getting [inside] the paint and finishing in the paint.”
Notae hit 7 of 8 free throws against the Gamecocks. Sophomore forward Jaylin Williams hit 9 of 10 free throws.
“We just drove a lot and picked up a lot of fouls in the paint,” Williams said.
Two years ago Arkansas guard Mason Jones led the nation in free throws made (233) and attempted (282). Last year guard Moses Moody was second in makes (151) and attempts (186) in his only season as a Razorback before being a first-round NBA Draft pick.
The Razorbacks don’t have as high a free throw volume shooter this season as Jones and Moody, but they’re getting to the line at a high rate collectively.
Senior guard Chris Lykes has hit 73 of 87 free throws (83.9%), senior forward Au’Diese Toney 60 of 79 (75.9%), Notae 50 of 66 (75.8%), sophomore guard Davonte Davis 35 of 49 (71.4%) and Williams 41 of 60 (68.3%).
“The key is really just being aggressive,” Toney said. “We all know right now that we’re not shooting the ball as well as we want to, but we’re just doing what we can to get to the rim, get fouled, get foul calls and be able to step up to the line and make shots.”
Pat Bradley is the Razorbacks’ all-time leader in three-point baskets with 366, but the SEC Network analyst approves of how Arkansas is driving the ball and drawing fouls.
“Coach Muss gets guys in position to slash and cut to the basket,” Bradley said. “I think they’re a great interior passing team. His players seem very comfortable working within the paint.
“They pass it well in the paint, they catch it in the paint. They do a lot of damage in there that leads to free throws.
“I love it. That’s going to win you a lot of games.”
Bradley was an 85.6% free throw shooter (247 of 288) as a Razorback.
“I would much rather see a team going to the basket and making free throws than shooting 8 of 28 or 6 of 27 on threes,” he said.
Kleine shot 72.3% on free throws (417 of 577) as a Razorback and 79.4% (849 of 1,069) in 15 seasons as an NBA player.
“A lot of the coaches that I had and respected taught us that if a team’s on a run or things aren’t going your way, getting to the free throw line helps you calm things down,” Kleine said. “It helps relax you as a player if you can go to the line and make a couple. It makes you feel a little bit more confident and feel better about yourself.”
Musselman said the Razorbacks have struggled at times in practice to make free throws.
“We have a drill called ‘Perfect Free Throw’ where we have to make eight in a row without a miss,” he said. “Then seven in a row without a miss. Six in a row without a miss. Five in a row. Four, three, two, one.
“That drill this year is taking us a little bit longer than prior years. But when we get in a game, we’ve done a good job because we have the right people taking the free throws.”
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