Posted: 1:05 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 8, 2014
By Sean Farrell
In a year without practicing free throws, the Syracuse Orange has managed to shoot one of the best percentages in the country.
They say practice makes perfect. But women's basketball coach Quentin Hillsman just isn't one of them.
Hillsman decided early this season to stop doing free throw drills in practice. His players don't remember exactly when it began. But Hillsman can recall why he first made the decision: the drills don't replicate game situations so they don't actually help players when it counts.
"You can line up and say make 25 and go home, but it’s not game-like," he said.
After all, it's about quality, not quantity right? And he wants his players focusing on making each shot, not how long it will be until a monotonous drill is over.
"It just becomes like get them in the air and get home," Hillsman said.
His ploy seems to be working just fine. The Orange is shooting 74.3 percent from the free throw line, good for third in the 15-team ACC. It places Syracuse near the top 10 percent in the country. Free throw shooting has been one of the biggest strengths throughout Syracuse's success this season. With its penetrating and aggressive style of offense, the Orange has gone to the line more and is making a higher percentage of these shots compared to last season. Sophomore forward Taylor Ford explained this strange dichotomy, saying that the Orange shoot so many free throws in games, practice isn’t as necessary. The Orange may miss one or two early on, but get comfortable as the game progresses.
"I take my time at the line," Ford said. "A lot of times when you make a free throw, you needed it because we’re down a couple of points."
Now there are exceptions to Hillsman's plan, as he explains.
"When we scrimmage, we shoot free throws on every foul," he said. "It helps us to shoot more in game-mode than to line up and shoot."
And players like Shakeya Leary also can get some extra work in on their own time.
"People do come in from time to time to get up shots," Leary said.
"With player development and other opportunities to come in and work in the gym, people do get the chance to shoot free throws."
Oddly enough, it's Leary – Syracuse's 6-foot-3 center – who is the best of the best in this category. She's shooting 85.7 percent, which leads the team.
"I go to the line with confidence," Leary explained. "Just be patient and pick your time. You get ten seconds. No one is pressuring you."
Leary has a chance to have the greatest statistical free throw shooting percentage in team history. The SU Athletics record book recognizes players for this achievement only if they have a minimum of 50 attempts in a season. Of those who qualify, Erin Kenneally leads with an 86.0 percent mark during the 1992-93 season.
Having a center that can knock down free throws has definite advantages. In the last few minutes of close games, Hillsman has made sure to substitute Leary into the game in situations when the opponent plans to foul. With the Orange clinging to a lead against Georgia Tech, the Yellow Jackets dared the inbounds passer to give the ball to the Syracuse center. A wide-open Leary took a pass, was fouled and then made two clutch free throws.
"Nine times out of ten, your center is going to be the one open coming back to the ball," Hillsman said.
One of Syracuse’s best nights at the line came in a blowout win against Maryland Eastern Shore. The Orange went 22-26 (84.6 percent).
"We shot free throws one time," Hillsman said after the game. "I’m never shooting them again in practice."
But not all games have been as lopsided as Syracuse’s thrashing of Maryland Eastern Shore. SU has played ten games that have been decided by ten points or fewer. The Orange has won seven of them.
"We look at it as, free throws can either win or lose games," point guard Alexis Peterson said. "We take free throws very seriously, whether we practice it or not."
During Hillsman's tenure as head coach, Syracuse has hovered around the 70 percent mark. His best free throw shooting team came in 2011-12, when the Orange shot 75.1 percent. His worst was his first year – 67.3 percent.
The Orange is not only shooting more efficiently than its ACC counterparts, but also more efficiently than its Carrier Dome counterparts, the No. 1 Syracuse Orangemen’s basketball team. That team ranks 171st in the nation with 69.9 percent from the line, about 4.4 percent worse than the women.
But Hillsman isn’t too concerned. Asked if he had any advice on how to improve that percentage, Hillsman joked: "No, they’re undefeated. (They) will probably win the national championship so I have no advice for them."