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Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

John Blanchette: Something’s afoul at the free-throw line for nation’s No. 1 team

Jan. 4, 2020 Updated Sat., Jan. 4, 2020 at 11:28 p.m.

Not quite 7 minutes on the clock had elapsed Saturday night when a whistle sent Gonzaga to the foul line for the first time.

The hush that followed wasn’t necessarily simple etiquette.

And, yes, Anton Watson did miss the first of two shots to some muffled groans, but upon making the second the applause was also warmer than normal.

Then when Anton Gilder Jr. sealed a sweaty-palms 75-70 win over Pepperdine with a pair of free throws, the mood inside McCarthey Athletic Center was downright giddy. Or to at least enough to shroud the memory of the Bulldogs missing two 1-and-1s before which could have abridged all the angst.

Then again, there would have been even less had the Zags not turned over the ball a season-high 17 times with crazy diagonal passes and dribbling into the ozone and five offensive fouls. But in college basketball, new Band-Aids must be applied after each game.

Ask Saint Mary’s, which lost a four-overtime crusher at Pacific on Saturday night. Or top 10 teams like Oregon, Louisville, Memphis and Villanova, which all dropped games this weekend.

Ask the nation’s No. 1 team – just happy to be 2-0 in the West Coast Conference, never mind 16-1 on the big board.

There is one area, however, in which the Zags could use a tourniquet – or their fans a blindfold.

On Saturday morning, the Bulldogs woke up to find themselves 292nd among the 350 teams sorted in the NCAA’s foul shooting math – uncharted territory for Gonzaga, as far as can be determined. Presuming the current pace of 65.6% holds – and these things never quite do – the Zags are on their way to their worst performance at the stripe since 1996 (65.1). And if it falls below that, then it could be a nearly 50-year low.

This is almost inconceivable, given what the Zags are doing when play is live – and given their record.

“We’re the No. 1 offense in the country and shooting horrendously from the foul line,” assistant coach Brian Michaelson said. “If we’re making free throws, we’re further ahead than we were with last year’s offensive rate – which was historic.”

This gave Saturday’s hook-up with Pepperdine some statistical intrigue, in that the Waves lead the nation in free-throw shooting at 84.6%. They arrived with the same number of makes on the season as Gonzaga, with 87 fewer attempts.

But they’re also sporting a 7-9 record.

That’s not going to make GU’s struggles at the line any less appalling to the armchair army.

It is a fact that there exists a list of things that civilians believe they can do as well or better than their sweaty heroes. A countdown of the top five might go like this:

5) Not take strike three down the middle;

4) Be good at MMA because they got in a good lick in a bar fight once;

3) Kick extra points, even from the deeper NFL distance;

2) Make 3-foot putts;

1) Shoot free throws.

Many believe No. 1 can be fixed simply by hollering from the bleachers, “Make your foul shots!” Or with, yes, practice – which they presume a team is skipping if it continues to have problems at the stripe.

Right. Like the Zags practiced free throws twice as much a year ago, when they shot 76 percent and were 16th in the country in the art.

“It’s being addressed reps-wise,” Michaelson said, “but it’s a fine line, too. It can be a confidence issue and I think it’s a little contagious, too, whether you want to admit it or not.”

A couple of games over the 70% mark suggested progress, but then came Thursday’s 11-of-23 performance at Portland. Against the Waves, the Zags were 14 of 21, which actually brought their average up a skosh.

Surely it was encouraging to see Filip Petrusev drain 4 of 5 after a 1-of-6 nightmare at UP – especially as he’s the Bulldog most likely to be fouled, and last year was one of four Zags who topped 80%.

But sometimes there’s just no way to make sense of the numbers. Consider the career seesaw at the stripe for an old Zags great like Cory Violette – whose seasonal numbers went from 54 to 77 to 57 to 75 over the course of his GU career.

“I think one of the problems this year is that Gonzaga’s two best free-throw shooters, (Corey) Kispert and Gilder, are guys who don’t get a ton of attempts,” said Dan Dickau, who sees the Zags regularly as a TV analyst. “That’s just the way their games are built. They aren’t guys who’ve maybe been to the line three, four, five times a game before they’re put in a position where you have to have one.”

And as the first weekend of WCC play suggests, the Zags are going to be in that position often enough.

The percentages say so.

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