Free throws remain Achilles’ heel for USC


If you start reading this column expecting something about the holy day of signing, when 18-year-olds finally put years of doodling their signatures in the margin of their Algebra notebooks into practice (or not, in the case of Texas A&M recruit Floyd Raven, whose mom forged his signature on a letter of intent to Ole Miss), continue reading, but flip the switch.

I’m here to talk about a situation much more important than where De’Anthony Thomas is going to get paid (in scholarship money, of course) to play football.

This is an epidemic that is sweeping the Pac-10, and a problem that is taking ahold of USC’s basketball team.

It can’t be cured by a simple shot, but hours of therapy consisting of many shots should start to clear the system.

Yes, I’m talking about free throws.  The one shot in basketball that remains constant no matter the situation.

Five seconds left in the game, down two points, drive to the hoop and get hacked?

Step behind a line 15 feet from the middle of the basket, stand there, gather yourself and the ball and shoot a shot with nobody guarding you. Repeat.

Get fouled shooting a jumper six minutes into the game and the score 10-10, what do you do?

Same thing.

What is amazing is that these situations never change.

There are a thousand ways to shoot the same jump shot depending on the situation, but the act of shooting a free throw remains constant throughout all levels of basketball.

Anyone who has followed USC basketball over the last few years knows the one place that USC fans are most scared of is the free-throw line.

In 2007, then-sophomore guard Daniel Hackett stood at the line with two free throws to win the game with five seconds left against No. 2 Memphis at Madison Square Garden.

He made the first free throw to tie it, but missed the second, and eventually the Trojans lost in overtime.

There are countless other times when Trojan fans cringed at the sight of the charity stripe. But this year it’s worse than ever.

This season, the Trojans are shooting a dismal 64.5 percent from the line as a team.

They are ninth in the Pac-10 in free throw percentage and 292nd, out of 345, in the nation.

If they keep this pace up, it will be their worst percentage since they finished the 2004-05 season at a comical 59.8 percent.

Their lack of free throw success was evident in Wednesday night’s loss to the Bruins.

A few times in the second half, the Trojans were trying to make a run, but were stopped by their own ineptitude at the free-throw line.

With nine minutes to go in the game, senior forward Alex Stepheson stepped up to the line with a chance to cut UCLA’s lead to three, only to clang both attempts off the rim.

Then with four minutes left, senior guard Marcus Simmons missed a free throw that would’ve cut UCLA’s lead to nine. Just one minute later, with the chance to get within seven, junior guard Jio Fontan missed a pair that essentially put the nail in USC’s coffin.

With a team that was shooting as poorly from the field as USC was Wednesday, the recipe to stay in the game is to attack the rim and get to the line.

But I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s exactly what the Bruins wanted the Trojans to do.

Given that the Trojans are so defensively minded, they can’t afford to miss opportunities at the free-throw line.

These problems have been evident all year for the Trojans.

Some fans might remember an exhibition game against Point Loma in November in which Stepheson went 3-for-10 from the line and drew sarcastic cheers every time he made a free throw.

“It was funny, but it wasn’t funny,” Stepheson said afterwards.

The fifth-year senior has been a big culprit in contributing to USC’s free throw woes.

He shot 49 percent from the line last year and is shooting just under 49 percent for this season.

He’s said that he’s not distracted during the games while shooting free throws.

USC coach Kevin O’Neill tried to explain Stepheson’s free throw issues in November, but four months later those same issues are still apparent.

“He’s not a great free throw shooter,” O’Neill said after the Point Loma game.

“Tightening up” is an expression many players have used throughout the years to explain the free throw dilemma.

The pressure and fatigue vary from situation to situation in a game, and that’s hard to replicate in practice.

That’s something I can understand, and the mental aspect definitely is a factor when shooting free throws in a game.

Whether poor free throw shooting is preventing USC from becoming an NCAA tournament caliber team is questionable — there are too many other variables at work.

But one thing is for certain: The ability to shoot free throws well has definitely cost USC a few games this year.

It’s about time the Trojans step it up.

“Spittin’ Sports” runs Fridays. To comment on this article e-mail Kenny at klegan@usc.edu or visit dailytrojan.com.