Free throws aren't free for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga men's basketball team.
The Mocs have been earning them in the offensive system installed by first-year head coach Will Wade.
UTC has attempted and made more shots from the stripe than any other Southern Conference team by a wide margin heading into games Thursday night.
The freebies have been part of UTC's success since returning from Christmas break.
"It's important for us to get to the line," Wade said. "We put a lot of pressure on the rim. We drive it in. We create a lot of contact in there. We've got stronger guards who can bull their way to the rim, and Z. [Mason] is getting fouled down low."
The Mocs (15-10, 9-1) returned from winter vacation and won 10 consecutive games, started the SoCon season 8-0 and launched themselves into first place.
They did so, in part, by altering their offensive system, using the strengths of the players on the roster and adapting to a dribble-drive offensive scheme. Through Wednesday, the Mocs had attempted 65 more free throws than any other SoCon team.
A big part of UTC's plan to get so many free tosses is driving the lane and getting fouled.
Wade and assistant coach Wes Long noticed in the preseason that the Mocs weren't maximizing their opportunities at the line, based on math from last year. Long had the challenge of fixing the Mocs at the free-throw line.
Based on the 2012-13 statistics, several players, including Lance Stokes, Gee McGhee and Casey Jones, had flaws in their flips from 15 feet. UTC shot 66.5 percent from the free-throw line last season. Their flaws were evident on video.
The Mocs are up to 71.2 percent this season, and more importantly, 75.7 percent in SoCon games, which is second only to Davidson.
"We're scoring more than 20 percent of our point at the line," Wade said, "and it's part of what we're doing and a byproduct of our offense."
The Mocs' success at the line has been earned. The players practiced free throws only at early hours, before classes began, during the offseason. Long uses a variety of tools to help the Mocs -- including a cardboard box to create the image of moving the ball up through an elevator shaft -- maintain good mechanics on the free shot.
"We thought that if we could improve free-throw shooting that we could win a handful of more games," Long said. "They got to the line a lot last year, and we're getting to the line at a better clip this year."
The result is that five of six players playing meaningful minutes this year have better shooting percentages at the line than a year ago.
Mason has dropped from 71.8 percent to 69.8 percent, which could change in one game. Those in the regular rotation who have improved at the line include McGhee, junior captain Ronrico White, Jones and Eric Robertson.
Jones, who opposing coaches have called an "all-conference player," has gone from shooting 51.4 percent to 71.4 percent.
"He was pushing the ball with all of his upper body," Long said. "We worked on his pickup point; then we worked on hand placement."
The results have helped the Mocs win games, he believes.
"We worked on it," Long said. "They worked on it. They still shoot after practices and do it on their own."
Point guard White knows the value of getting to the line with a team that ranks last in 3-point shooting at 32.5 percent in SoCon games.
"We're always going to be an attacking team," White said. "Getting there is only half of the battle. You have to make them. And we're making more than we used to."
Contact David Uchiyama at email@example.com or 423-757-6484. Follow him at twitter.com/UchiyamaCTFP.
David Uchiyama is a sports writer at the Chattanooga Times Free Press who began his tenure here in May 2001. His primary beats are UTC athletics — specifically men’s basketball and athletic department administration — and golf, which includes coverage from the PGA Tour to youth events. He also covers other high school sports, outdoor adventures, and contributes to other sections of the newspaper when necessary. David grew up in Salinas, Calif., and began working ...
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