Sports

Cats, Auburn tell two different stories at free throw line

Auburn Coach Jeff Lebo links his team's struggles to "the green man." By inference, the absence of "the green man" contributes to Kentucky's success.

No, this critical factor is not a recruit from Ireland. Nor is he Al Gore's favorite environmentally conscious player.

"The green man" (a.k.a. the pink elephant in the room) is a euphemistic term used to describe an over-burdened mind. He can take up residence when a basketball player is most vulnerable: standing alone at the foul line.

Hardly two better examples of "the green man's" influence or lack thereof can be found than the teams competing in Rupp Arena Wednesday night.

Kentucky leads the Southeastern Conference and nearly the nation in free-throw accuracy. In NCAA statistics for games through Jan. 15, the Cats ranked second nationally to UC Davis. A 20-for-26 shooting game at Georgia Sunday slightly lowered UK's accuracy to 79.2 percent, which remained well on pace to top the school record of 77.6 percent set in 1978-79.

Rather than take a bow or discuss UK's excellence in detail, Coach Billy Gillispie seemed to fear attracting "the green man's" attention.

"I don't want to talk anymore about it," he said Sunday when asked a follow-up question about free-throw shooting, "because I don't want to hex it."

By contrast, Auburn's 59.2-percent shooting ranked 324th in the nation in free-throw accuracy. That was close enough to rock bottom (330 Division I teams) to cause Lebo to sound a color-coded alarm.

"I call it the green man," he said last week. "The green man comes out and gets in your head.

"And sometimes you've got to have something else in your head to counter-balance the green man. ... We've got the green man in there right now."

Auburn exorcised "the green man" in its victory over archrival Alabama on Saturday. The Tigers made 15 of 21 free throws in the 85-71 victory.

On an SEC teleconference on Monday, Lebo was not so sure that Auburn banished "the green man" for good.

"I don't know if he's out of there," he said of his players' minds. "We put him in a cave for a game. Hopefully we won't bring him out anymore."

The subject of free-throw shooting made mum the word on the SEC coaches' teleconference. Kevin Stallings of Vanderbilt and Trent Johnson of LSU noted how they avoid discussing shooting with their players.

After crediting a tried-and-proven routine for inducing free-throw accuracy over the years, Stallings said, "We don't talk about it much."

But Stallings, a demanding coach who isn't shy about speaking his mind, added, "I'm not above saying something if guys start to miss. I'm not particularly tolerant of guys who don't make free throws. For a guy to walk to the line and miss a free throw, it's like a turnover."

Johnson said he limited any discussion of shooting to differentiating between good shots and bad shots.

"That's one part of the game kids need to enjoy," he said. "From my standpoint, you have a routine, you have a ritual. When you step to the line, do it.

"But relax. It's not life and death."

Tennessee Coach Bruce Pearl noted the isolation of the free throw. In UK's case for a home game, there's 24,000 people focused on one person shooting in deathly quiet or jet engine noise.

"It's such a mental procedure," Pearl said.

Other basketball action triggers quick-muscle fibers. Make a post move. Shoot a three-pointer. Cut off a drive.

"You're not thinking of the outcome," Pearl said. "With a free throw, you give some thought to the end result."

So far, no SEC player shoots free throws as well as UK guard Jodie Meeks. He's made 90.6 percent of his shots from the foul line. The SEC record (minimum 100 attempts) for accuracy in a season is 91.2 percent shared by two UK players (Kyle Macy in 1979-80 and Travis Ford in 1993-94) and Tennessee's Scooter McFadgon (2003-04).

"I try not to think about anything," Meeks said after UK's victory at Georgia on Sunday. "I try to concentrate on seeing the ball go in, and try to clear my mind.

"And I try not to hold the ball too long."

Meeks scoffed at the notion that his sharp-shooting had been contagious, thus leading Kentucky within range of the SEC team record for free-throw accuracy in a season: 80.2 percent by Vanderbilt in 1973-74.

"Everybody on this team works hard," Meeks said. "Before practice (and) after practice, guys are in the gym constantly getting up shots. So I don't think it's me making shots. It's everybody's work ethic."

No coach dismissed the importance of free-throw shooting. Pearl noted the difference it made in Kansas beating Memphis in the national championship game last year and, hitting closer to home, how missed free throws cost Auburn a victory over Florida last week.

Lebo estimated that free-throw shooting impacts the outcome of 80 percent of conference games.

If one of those games is Kentucky-Auburn on Wednesday, the Cats seem well positioned.

"It's been great so far," Gillispie said of his team's free-throw shooting. "We haven't had a ton of close games. But close games are coming."

Just don't tell "the green man."

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