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When free throws turn foul: Spartans shaky from the line

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — If the Final Four comes down to free throws, Tom Izzo may want to cover his eyes.

Michigan State made it this far in spite of its poor foul shooting, but despite his best efforts, the Spartans’ coach has had a hard time helping his players improve at the line.

“We begged them, we threatened them, we prayed with them,” Izzo said. “We did everything.”

Michigan State enters Saturday night’s national semifinal against Duke shooting 63.2 percent on free throws, and to win the national title, the Spartans will have to buck a pretty conclusive trend. Only one team in the last four decades has won the NCAA Tournament while being this bad at foul shots.

Right now, the best news for Michigan State might be that its next opponent has issues of its own. Jahlil Okafor, Duke’s leading scorer, shoots only 51 percent at the line — so that game may be decided by which struggling free throw shooters produce under pressure.

Michigan State is hoping to repeat Connecticut’s feat from last year by winning the national title as a No. 7 seed, but there’s at least one obvious difference between the teams. The 2014 Huskies finished fourth in the nation in free throw percentage, shooting 78 percent for the season and 88 percent in the NCAA Tournament.

The Spartans have been nowhere near that reliable. Branden Dawson and Gavin Schilling are both under 50 percent this season. Tum Tum Nairn is shooting 52 percent from the line, and Matt Costello is at 67 percent. During one home loss to Illinois, Michigan State made only 7 of 18 free throws.

At times, it felt like nothing good could come of a Michigan State foul shot. On March 7, the Spartans were leading Indiana with less than a second remaining, so Izzo wanted Marvin Clark to intentionally miss a free throw. Naturally, the ball went in that time, and an exasperated Izzo slumped to his knees and leaned against the scorer’s table. Michigan State did hold on to win that game.

Duke is shooting 69.5 percent from the line, a figure that would be higher if Okafor weren’t attempting more free throws than anybody else on the team. The freshman’s foul shooting is one of his few weaknesses.

Helping a player like that improve is tricky, because free throw problems can be both mental and physical.

“It can start mechanical and end up being mental, or it can start mental and be mechanical. Each kid’s different,” Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “The bottom line is some kids can shoot better than others.”

There will be some good foul shooters at the Final Four. Several of them play for Wisconsin, which ranks 11th in the country at 76.4 percent. Unbeaten Kentucky is shooting a solid 72.5 percent, in stark contrast to some of coach John Calipari’s previous teams.

When Calipari was the coach at Memphis in 2008, he lost a gut-wrenching national title game to Kansas when his team went 12 of 19 at the line. In last season’s championship game, Kentucky shot 13 of 24 against UConn.

But that hasn’t been a weakness for this year’s Wildcats.

“We really do shoot free throws well,” Calipari said recently. “If you foul us, the free throw line’s going to make a difference in the game.”

The worst free throw-shooting team to win a title over the last 40 years was Connecticut in 2004, according to STATS. The Huskies shot 62.3 percent that year. The 10 national champions since have all shot at least 69 percent.

Michigan State is well below that mark, so the Spartans will either have to withstand a few more missed free throws or shoot them better for the next two games. They did make some important free throws down the stretch in a Sweet 16 win over Oklahoma, and they went 15 of 20 against Louisville in the regional final.

With the matchup against Duke looming, Izzo recalled some wise words about foul shots from his coaching mentor.

“Jud Heathcote once told me, ‘If you get the right guys to the line, you’ll shoot better,'” Izzo said. “I don’t think we have that opportunity or option all the time. It’s not something we’re worried about. We are what we are and we’ll go from there.”

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