Missed free throws plaguing Minnesota

The team has the second-to-last free throw percentage in the Big Ten.

Jack Satzinger

Minnesota’s slow start to conference play is due to a variety of reasons.

Rutgers head coach Eddie Jordan called the close losses “bad luck.”

Iowa’s Fran McCaffery said the Gophers’ Big Ten schedule “wasn’t kind to them coming out of the gate.”

But Tuesday night’s 52-49 loss at Nebraska, which dropped Minnesota to 1-6 in the Big Ten, showed the Gophers might be losing because they’re bad at one of basketball’s easiest tasks: free-throw shooting.

They hit just 9-of-19 free-throw attempts in the three-point loss to the Cornhuskers. If Minnesota had knocked down three more for a humble 63 percent, it would have forced overtime.

But the poor performance from the line wasn’t an isolated situation. Minnesota is currently second-to-last in the Big Ten in free-throw shooting with a 64 percent clip on the year.

No players on the roster are shooting above 76 percent after both Andre and Austin Hollins did so last season.

 “Free throws have obviously really, really hurt us,” head coach Richard Pitino said.

Last week, Pitino tried to rectify the problem.

He made players shooting under 70 percent on the season put up extra attempts in practice.

Freshman guard Nate Mason said he usually shoots 100 free-throws per day, but he’s added an extra 250 attempts to the daily agenda over the past week to try to improve. Mason is making less than 60 percent of his free throws, which is far worse than some of the other talented freshman guards in the conference.

Ohio State’s D’Angelo Russell is nearly hitting 80 percent of his attempts, while Maryland’s Melo Trimble is a red-hot 88 percent. James Blackmon of Indiana is less than a percentage point behind him.

“I’ve just got to get that down pat,” Mason said.

Pitino recently inserted Mason into the starting lineup but still pokes fun at him for his lackluster free-throw shooting.

“His nickname is 1-for-2. It’s always 1-for-2 with him,” Pitino said, laughing.

It’s particularly surprising Mason is struggling to convert from the free-throw line. Not only is he Minnesota’s most efficient 3-point shooter at 45 percent, but those watching Mason on the floor are particularly impressed by his poise.

“He is a good shooter, and he’s a mentally tough kid,” Pitino said. “There’s no reason why he shouldn’t be a better free-throw shooter.”

Mason started watching film of his shooting motion to see why his numbers are low and found he has an inconsistent routine.

Sometimes he pulls his hand back early, and other times he follows all the way through.

“Nate has got the ability in my opinion just basketball-wise to be one of the better guards in the Big Ten when it’s all said and done,” Pitino said. “He could really be special if he could make his free throws.”

So could the Gophers if they followed suit.

But even with some added attention to detail, Minnesota continues to struggle from the free-throw line and wither away in the game’s biggest moments.