Charity challenge

Alando Tucker is striving to break out of a free-throw shooting slump

Alando Tucker toed the free-throw line comfortably and confidently at the end of practice Monday afternoon. With his Wisconsin teammates crowded around the paint, Tucker went through his routine and eyed the Kohl Center rim. He then made two consecutive shots, bringing the Badgers' practice to a close.

It was not a customary finish, and not just because Tucker has been struggling mightily at the free-throw line in games this season. Typically, players will rotate through the end-of-practice ritual. One player, one shot.

UW coach Bo Ryan, however, wanted to challenge Tucker.

"He told me to step up," Tucker said. "Game's on the line, I have to make a one-and-one."

"I was going to step up anyway," Tucker said. "I talked to him before. But he's just always the type of guy who's going to challenge me. He wants to put a little pressure on me. And so, just step up there relaxed and knock it down."

It was a good day for Tucker at the free-throw line. Though he is making free throws at a miserable 47 percent clip in games, you would not gather that he is struggling from watching the Badgers' practices this season. Monday was the clearest recent example of the fact that, yes, Tucker is very capable of making free throws. Just moments before his practice-closing makes, Tucker connected on 23 of 25 charted attempts, including his last 18 shots.

"It's getting better lately," Tucker said of the 25-free-throw sessions, a regular part of UW's practice routine. "… I was putting a lot of pressure on myself to come in before practices and try to get a lot of extra shots in. I think mentally it was just I was worrying about it too much. Lately I will shoot a couple extra after practice but I don't try to worry about it too much and I think that's relaxing me a little more."

Now, to translate that improvement in practice into games. In the final 12 games of last season Tucker made 78 percent at the line (57 of 73). But he started slowly last year, shooting 61 percent prior to his end-of-season spurt. This season, Tucker's beginning has been frigid—near Arctic of late. In the past four games, he has made 9 of 33 free throws (27 percent).

"We know he can do it," point guard Kammron Taylor said. "Because he does it in practice. I think it's just in the game, the game is different. You know you have 15,000 people in the stands waving their hands and stuff… I think with him he just has to get more confidence in his routine."

Two of the loudest cheers in Wisconsin's 68-52 win over Northwestern Saturday came on Tucker's two made free throws (on five attempts). Tucker's teammates needled him about the crowd's response, especially after one of the made free throws was replayed on the Kohl Center video boards.

"It's funny. Guys were laughing," Tucker said after Saturday's game. "(They said) ‘That might make some ESPN highlights.'"

So what is the key to free-throw shooting?

"It's just like a jump shot: practice. And the more practice you do, the more confident you feel about it," said Taylor, who is making 85 percent of his free throws to lead UW. "You have to get a certain routine and stick with it. So, I've had the same routine ever since I first started shooting free throws…. That's why I feel so confident every time I shoot my free throws."

"It's a lot mental," said Ryan, a better than 70 percent free-throw shooter in his playing days at Wilkes College. He emphasized the importance of confidence. "It's just that's the way free throws are. And that's not going to change."

Ryan drew an analogy to another sport.

"Bowlers, there are certain… spares they can't pick up," he said. "Because it becomes mental with them. I don't bowl, but I had a bowler tell me that once. Because when you are a coach and you have a free-throw shooter that's struggling, you get a lot of people telling you things that are kind of interesting."

Assistant coach Gary Close, UW's resident shooting expert, agrees that confidence is key.

"I think just getting the confidence back," Close said. "We've seen him shoot it well. So it's not like he's been a bad shooter his whole career. It's just a matter of time. He's shooting well in practice. He just hasn't been able to transfer that to a game on a consistent basis."

As Taylor said, sticking to a routine helps.

Said Taylor: "I just step to the line, get my right foot lined up in front of the basket. Three dribbles. Spin the ball. Squat… and shoot.

"It's nothing too complicated," Taylor said.

Simple, but sticking to a routine can be difficult when the ball is not going in the hoop. Recently, Close asked Tucker what was different last year; what was he thinking about at the line?

"I told him I wasn't. I was relaxed," Tucker said. "I wasn't thinking. I was relaxed.

"This year I've been thinking. I got off to missing a couple and then I started thinking about, was it my form, or should I change that up. I've been uncomfortable out there, stepping up and trying different things. And it's not been working… I have to stay with my set routine and step up there and not think as much as I've been doing in the past."

Tucker said lately he has been sticking to a routine and clearing his mind. He is beginning to feel more confident. But there is another quirk he is trying to work out of his free throw attempts.

"I step up, take two dribbles, get set, and then I go up," said Tucker regarding his routine. "But a lot of times—I've been looking at my past free throws. And I've been falling backwards. I've been taking two dribbles and when I shoot it I'm leaning backwards. So it is almost where I'm fading back and it's causing the ball to be short."

Tucker certainly did not appear to be fading back when he was making 18 in a row Monday. And even when he is not making them in games, his teammates and coaches have credited him for staying aggressive on offense.

"You can imagine anybody going through something like that it's going to shake you a little bit," Close said. Then, referring to Tucker's 0-for-6 free-throw day at Minnesota Jan. 10, Close added: "I think to his credit he kept taking the ball to contact, kept posting up. A lot of guys would have drifted out to the perimeter for fear of being fouled. That's the mental toughness that I think will get him over the hump."

"He just has always had that compact stroke, but he's also had streaks where he's shot it extremely well," Ryan said. "So I'm already on record saying he's going to get hot. See if I know what the hell I'm talking about."

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