Wayne Selden lifted his shoulders and took a deep breath, dribbling once before spinning the ball in his right hand.
With 2:02 left in the first half of Saturday’s game against Iowa State, the Kansas guard was trying to shake some recent free-throw woes by sticking to his routine.
It didn’t work.
The shot was aimed too far left, bounding off the rim as Selden slapped his hands against his hips in frustration. The second free throw was closer, bounding high off the back rim before touching the top of the backboard and falling off. Selden leaned his head back in disgust as he backpedaled to the other end.
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Selden, who made 1 of 4 free throws Saturday, finished February making 12 of 28 shots from the line (43 percent). His recent struggles have mirrored his team’s issues, as KU ranked in the bottom half of the Big 12 with 71-percent free-throw accuracy during Big 12 play.
“We’ve got to make them,” KU coach Bill Self said. “You know what, we’ve been a good free-throw shooting team when it counted. We haven’t been a very good free-throw shooting it seems like to me when it didn’t count, so maybe that’s a positive sign.
“But certainly that could bite us.”
KU has especially struggled the last two games. The Jayhawks made 11 of 24 in a road victory over Texas before going 9 for 15 against Iowa State.
“I think it’s more mental than anything,” KU forward Landen Lucas said. “We’ll go through and shoot pretty good free throws in practice and get out onto the court … it’s one of those things where people go through shooting slumps in games. The same thing can happen with free throws, because you’re thinking about the last couple ones.”
That could explain Selden’s rough stretch lately. A 62-percent career free-throw shooter, Selden has appeared to be extra critical of himself when he’s missed shots, many times screaming out in anger.
“It’s hard because he knows that it’s something that he’s not doing well right now, but he’s capable of doing well,” Lucas said. “Just like any player, you’re going to be frustrated with yourself if you’re not making shots that you can make.”
Lucas doesn’t believe free-throw shooting should be a problem for this year’s team. When he looks up and down the roster, he doesn’t see any poor shooters that should be dragging KU’s numbers down.
It’s not like free throws are ignored, either. Lucas says the team works on them both during and after practice.
“It’s just carrying it over to the game that’s important,” he said. “We know that it’s going to be big, especially in a close game in these next two tournaments coming up, so hopefully, some guys will get in on their own, too, and start working on it.”
KU’s free-throw problems could be worse. The Jayhawks have made 70 percent of their tries this season, which is exactly the national average.
Though Self says he will talk about free-throw shooting in practices, he’s wary to call too much attention to it. The last thing he wants is to put the thought in the back of his players’ minds that the team has a fundamental problem.
He still admits there will be little room for error in the next few weeks.
“You don’t make free throws in the postseason, the chances of you advancing against a comparable team is not very good,” Self said. “You don’t make them here at home, you know, you’ve got the home crowd. If you don’t make them on the road but you’re up 15, you’re still safe.
“But in the tournament, yeah, that could be disaster.”