Nathan Hyde of Findlay stepped up to the free-throw line in a thrilling home game against Malone earlier this season and didn’t flinch as he calmly converted on both attempts.
The two shots by the senior guard pushed the lead to 90-87 with 12 seconds to go and the Oilers would go on to win the game 92-87, surviving an upset bid inside Croy Gymnasium.
The fact that Hyde thrived in a pressure situation at the line isn’t a surprise. He is one of the top free-throw shooters in the nation, missing only three times in his last 66 attempts, and is one of a handful of NCAA Division II basketball players who have made good free-throw shooting an art form rather than an exception.
His secret to success really isn’t a secret at all. It’s all about repetition for Hyde, who ranks third in Division II in free-throw percentage (92.4) and is on his way to being the top free-throw shooter in school history.
“You have to shoot a lot if you want to be a good at it,” Hyde said. “I spend a lot of time working on that part of my game because (free throws) can be such an important part of the success of the team.”
Senior guard LaDarius Hall of West Texas A&M is also one of the more accurate shooters in the country. He is fourth in the nation at 92.1 percent. A total of 11 players in DII are shooting at least 90 percent from the line.
“I stay after practice for about 30 minutes each day to work on my free-throw shooting,” Hall said. “To me, free-throw shooting is about repetition and being comfortable with your routine.”
The interesting thing, however, is that great free-throw shooting is rare. Countless times during a season a player will go to the line in a game with a chance to secure a win or chip away at a small deficit with the clock stopped and come up short.
In fact, Findlay is the only DII team in the country that is shooting at least 80 percent (80.5) from the line and has two players in the top 20 nationally. Junior point guard Kyle Caiola is shooting 88.8 percent on the season, good enough for 20th.
Three other Division II teams are shooting 79 percent. At the Division I level, Wisconsin (82.6) and Harvard (80.3) are the only two teams shooting 80 percent or better. No team in Division III is shooting 80 percent or better from the stripe.
Augusta State head coach Dip Metress, who has guided his Jaguars to three consecutive appearances in the DII Elite Eight, isn’t shocked that a lot of teams struggle to connect on foul shots.
His team, however, doesn’t have that problem. The Jaguars are third in the nation in free-throw percentage (79.6) and junior guard Tye Beal has led the way, ranking 13th in the nation by hitting 89.3 percent of his shots.
“Teams struggle because players and coaches don’t emphasize the importance of them in their individual workouts and team practices,” Metress said. “Players often do not like to be held accountable for their actions and my high school coach, Red Jenkins, used to say ‘if you can’t shoot, you run.’”
There is no question that the importance of free throws is stressed at Findlay. Before practice ends each day, the players scatter to baskets around the gym and take a little time to shoot free throws.
Being able to hit foul shots is only one part of the equation, according to Findlay head coach Ron Niekamp, who led the Oilers to the 2009 DII national championship.
“It is important to shoot a good percentage, but you have to be able to create situations where the defense has to foul,” Niekamp said. “We’ve been successful doing that and have been able to convert at a high rate. It’s an important part of our game.”
Practice might not make perfect but it certainly helps. Being focused from a mental standpoint is an important ingredient to good free-throw shooting as well.
“It’s 50 percent mental and 50 percent physical,” Hall said. “You have to know you are going to make the shot, but you also have to be comfortable with the fact that you are taking shots when you aren’t being guarded.”
As the postseason approaches, free-throw shooting becomes even more important. A point or two can make all the difference between going home or moving on to the next round of the tournament.
The Oilers begin their conference tournament next week and have their eyes set on a 10th consecutive appearance to the NCAA tournament. Success in both postseason events will hinge on being able to continue their consistency at the line.
“Free throws become huge in the tournament,” Hyde said. “You have to be able to make a high percentage of your free throws if you want to be successful.”
Metress is counting on his team to have success at the line as well as the Jaguars begin their quest to return to the national tournament. The funny thing is that when the season began, he was concerned with his team’s ability to knock down free throws. His fears have since been eased.
“I thought it was going to be a weakness for us, so every time we shot free throws in practice, we would have to average over 79 percent because that was the best percentage in the country last year,” Metress said. “Hopefully our free throw shooting will continue in the postseason.”