Sweet Charity?

All 4 finalists have a shot to shine at line, but it's rare for season to have foul end

Men's Final Four

March 30, 2007|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Sun Reporter

National championship on the line. Two free throws, one-point deficit, three seconds left. Who should take the shots?

If you're Ohio State, you probably want Ron Lewis, who hasn't missed a foul shot in four NCAA tournament games and is a 78 percent free-throw shooter this season. You might not want Greg Oden's 64 percent; he shot left-handed much of the season because of an injured right wrist.

If you're Florida, you want Taurean Green, who stroked 85 percent at the line. You don't want Lee Humphrey, who has taken just 12 foul shots in more than 1,100 minutes this season, none in the tournament.

The last college player to face that situation - national title on the line and a one-point deficit - rose magnificently to the challenge.

Not since Michigan's Rumeal Robinson cashed in those pressure free throws with three seconds left to beat Seton Hall in overtime in 1989 has the NCAA championship game been decided at the foul line.

If those circumstances repeat themselves in Monday's championship game in Atlanta, it likely will involve Florida or Ohio State.

Both teams have feasted at the foul line, not only in this tournament, but all season.

The Gators took 271 more free throws than their opponents during the season. In the tournament, they have taken 73 more - an average of 18 per game.

"That's because of their inside game, their power brand of basketball," said Len Elmore, CBS analyst and former Maryland great. "Florida is tremendously strong down low."

Ohio State can't quite match Florida's strength inside, even with the 7-foot Oden, but the Buckeyes nevertheless took 230 more foul shots than the opposition this season. In wins over Tennessee and Memphis, they took more than twice the combined free throws the losers did.

It's not necessarily the number of shots that wins, though. UCLA has taken just 77 in the tournament, but has the best percentage (.766) of any Final Four team.

Few shots for Hoyas

Then there's Georgetown. The Hoyas have an 87 percent shooter in Jonathan Wallace, a 78 percent shooter in Jeff Green and a 77 percent shooter in DaJuan Summers. But the Hoyas have taken eight fewer free throws than their opponent this tournament. They took 16 fewer in an overtime victory against North Carolina.

"Georgetown doesn't shoot a lot of free throws generally," ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said. "They use a lot of clock; they're not a team that has a high number of possessions, and don't get as many free throws as their opponent."

Free-throw shooting easily could decide the Final Four matchups.

When UCLA held off Pittsburgh's late run in the West Regional semifinal, the Bruins hit 23 of 26 free throws. They scored 12 of their last 18 points at the line.

When Ohio State beat Memphis in the South final, the Buckeyes hit their last 20 foul shots over the last nine minutes.

"Foul shooting can keep you in games by shooting a high percentage," said Andy Enfield, a Florida State assistant coach who hit an NCAA-record 92.5 percent of his free throws during a four-year run at Johns Hopkins.

"It can also put you up one or two possessions where you might be behind. In those games, foul shooting is extremely important. It gives you a chance to win."

Perhaps no one in the tournament has taken advantage of free throws more than defending champion Florida. The Gators hit 16, 27, 23 and 28 foul shots in their four wins. They have taken no less than 27 shots in any game, and as many as 43.

Total attempts can be misleading, however.

"Sometimes it's not the number you shoot, it's who you have shooting," said Chris Knoche, former American University coach and now radio analyst for Maryland. "The trick is to get the right guys to the line.

"And not just the right guy, but the right guy at the right time. There are a lot of guys who don't shoot a great percentage, but you feel very comfortable with them on the line and the game on the line. Conversely, another guy will shoot a good percentage, but when the game's on the line, he may be very different."

UCLA has gotten the right guy to the line in the tournament. The Bruins are shooting 12 percentage points higher in the tournament than their seasonal average.

They have three of the tournament's best foul shooters in Darren Collison (81 percent), Arron Afflalo (80) and Josh Shipp (77). They also have three of the worst: Lorenzo Mata (37), Luc Richard Mbah a Moute (57) and Alfred Aboya (58).

Pressure players

In Lewis and point guard Mike Conley Jr., Ohio State has two players who respond well to pressure. Oden also has hit big shots.

"Oden's not that bad a free-throw shooter," Elmore said. "The guy's going to make it with the game on the line. In the last two minutes, I don't know if he wants to go there, though. That's part of the battle. Mike Conley wants to go to the line; he's a guy that's going to knock shots down. So is [Florida's] Taurean Green."

Elmore noted that the Gators' Humphrey is not the player coach Billy Donovan wants shooting fouls in the last seconds.

"The way Donovan ran one inbounds play, Humphrey was running the length of the court away from the ball. That was smart," Elmore said.

It's improbable that Monday's championship will come down to a make-or-break free-throw situation, as it did 18 years ago. That's how the NCAA wants it, too.

"Over the course of time you see a real reluctance by the officials to have a whistle decide the game," Knoche said. "I think that's a good thing. Officials have pretty much determined to let play and players decide it."

Said Elmore: "Also, guys are afraid to take action for fear of fouling down the stretch, not realizing it's rare [officials] will make a call."

ken.murray@baltsun.com

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