(Bonus points for whoever came up with the "missed free throws make me want to kill myself" tag on SBNation...)
Writing something like this is just begging for a jinx...
Alabama disposed of Vanderbilt 82-75 in the SEC Tournament's opening round, setting up a rematch between the Vols and the Tide from the game just played five days ago in Knoxville. Watching the Tide again tonight, they displayed a subtle but vital strength: these kids don't miss free throws.
On Sunday, Alabama was 16 of 19 at the line, 84.2%. Tonight, they were even better: 25 of 28, 89.3%. When Vanderbilt fouled to extend the game late, Alabama was perfect, making their last 12 free throws consecutively.
It's the little things that make the difference in March...and there's no more painful place to lose a game than at the free throw line.
Tennessee fans know this well. Two years ago, the Vols had every reason to beat #1 Ohio State and advance to the first Elite Eight in the history of the program...and shot 8 of 17 at the free throw line in a one point loss. That's 46%, if you're scoring at home...or if you're playing with your kids, whose junior pro team probably shoots a better percentage.
Sunday, Tennessee shot 10 of 22 - an even worse percentage - which is a number that's both hopeful and maddening. Hopeful, because you believe that if Tennessee just makes a few more free throws, there's enough of a gap between us and Alabama that you should feel good about us in the rematch. And maddening, because it seems like the sort of thing that's just waiting to happen to us again. Maybe not tomorrow, maybe not in Tampa...but perhaps next week, when survive and advance can be won and lost at the charity stripe.
Perhaps some of it is Pearl - if you're looking for the short list of things Buzz Peterson did better than Bruce, free throws give you a small argument (70.6% for Buzz's four teams, 67.1% for Bruce's four). However, each of those numbers are inflated by great individual shooters - Scooter McFadgon, CJ Watson and Chris Lofton all shot better than 88% at the line.
Who's the best free throw shooter currently wearing an orange jersey?
That's right - #5 is 26 of 31, 83.9%. But after him, there's no one in the regular rotation (a designation for which Negedu barely qualifies) shooting better than 75%.
That's alarming both in a general sense, and for the way that the Vols may be facing teams who are trying to extend the game against them...and every miss at the line keeps a team in it.
Free throws set up a miracle shot for Alabama on Sunday. Tonight they kept Vanderbilt at bay and helped the Tide keep playing. What role will they play in the rest of Tennessee's season?