Free throws costly, but Spartans see improvement

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — Lost in the all the fretting over late turnovers and a blown 11-point lead in the Big Ten tournament championship game was a fairly telling, if not surprising, statistic.

Michigan State, the worst free-throw shooting team in the conference, was 9-for-9. It was the first time the Spartans hadn't missed a free throw this season, and for the first time in a close game, it wasn't the focus.

Just don't ask senior guard Travis Trice to talk about it.

"I'm not even going to speak on it," he said. "Because I'm going to jinx it, but I have faith in it because we've been working hard."

But what could be better than perfect for a team shooting 63.3 percent that believes it handed away at least three or four wins because of it?

"No comment," Trice said, smiling.

It's a valid concern for Michigan State as it prepares to play Georgia in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday. And if the Spartans expect to advance, they'll need more games like last weekend's.

In the overtime loss, the focus was on Denzel Valentine's inadvertent pass with seconds to play and the fact Wisconsin's Josh Gasser was out of bounds when he saved a loose ball with Michigan State ahead by two points.

Michigan State can only hope the yips at the line don't return.

"The woes are at least a little bit in the rearview mirror," coach Tom Izzo said. "We have done a better job recently."

There has been some progress late. In a victory at Illinois in late February, Michigan State went 17-for-20, good for 85 percent and its best showing up until the Big Ten title game.

Michigan State, however, followed that with a 19-for-29 performance against Minnesota, complete with late-game misses on front ends of one-and-ones that led to losing a six-point lead in the final 30 seconds before falling in overtime. In the conference tournament, Michigan State was 11-for-18 against Ohio State and 13-for-20 against Maryland.

The season-long attention on the shooting woes have been at the center of the problem, Izzo believes, though the staff has worked on mechanics with some players.

"It got to be somewhat mental that collectively grew with our team," Izzo said. "It's like in baseball, you hear those rumors about, you know, if you're striking out, how more guys are striking out, it's just the way it works. It becomes contagious.

"I think we went through a little bit of that and we tried to remedy it by spending more time. We adjusted a few guys' techniques trying to do a few things with Branden (Dawson) that helped him. It's still a work in progress, but with the other guys it was just repetition, repetition, repetition, get more of them in."

Michigan State has had its share of brutal games at the line. In a home loss to Illinois, it was 7-for-18 and had a chance to take the lead in the final seconds but missed 2-of-4.

And when it got blown out at Maryland, Michigan State took 13 free throws and made four. That didn't decide the game, but Izzo is counting on the improved shooting to start to turn tight games in Michigan State's favor.

And individually, things have been getting better.

Dawson, a 50 percent shooter, is 7-for-10 in the last two games, and Trice is 18-for-22 in the last four games, including 8-for-9 in the victory over Indiana.

"That's what's so hard to figure out," Izzo said. "Could we have won definitely three, four games shooting 65 percent? I think we all agree that that would have been that way.

"So somehow I'm trying to use that as a positive. ... We have won a lot of games against some good people, and now is the time to put the free-throw thing, have it work to your advantage."