Villanova’s quest for free throw glory

Harvard’s Bob Ferry, right, defends Duke’s Johnny Dawkins in 1984. (Sean Kardon/Associated Press)

The one guaranteed source of drama in Villanova’s round of 32 game against Ohio State today will be watching what Jay Wright’s team does at the free throw line.

If the Wildcats were to go 7-of-10 at the line and be eliminated from the bracket by the Buckeyes, for example, then Villanova’s name will go down in the record books. Conversely, going 6-of-10? A forgotten season. That’s how close this thing is.

“This thing” is the record for the most accurate free throw shooting team of all time. The record has been held for decades by Harvard’s 1984 team, which converted 535 of its 651 tries for a success rate of 82.18 percent. Today, 38 years later, Villanova enters its game against OSU at 82.53. The Crimson of 1984 may watch today’s game in a state of high anxiety.

For a time it looked as if the record might fall last year. Both Colorado and Oral Roberts came close to setting a new standard, and the New York Times ran a piece on the free throw chase by Ken Plutnicki, who averaged nine points for that Harvard team.

Plutnicki attributed his team’s success at the line to head coach Frank McLaughlin’s practice regimen. “McLaughlin emphasized shooting free throws when tired (we ran sprints first),” Plutnicki wrote, “and shooting one-and-ones instead of grooving, say, 10 in a row. We ran sprints if we missed, and it paid off.”

In addition to making an unparalleled share of its free throws, Harvard also recorded a rather astonishing number of attempts. Despite the fact that teams play more games nowadays, Villanova’s 578 attempts pales in comparison with Harvard’s 651. Plutnicki and his teammates posted a robust 51.4 percent FTA/FGA, a level of frequency at the line that would make even Frank Martin jealous.

That Harvard team included Arne Duncan, who later served as U.S. Secretary of Education. The real hero in setting the record, however, was Joe Carrabino. The 6-foot-9 forward averaged 22 a game while going 153-of-169 at the line, good for 90.5 percent. Teams have been chasing that kind of accuracy ever since.

As it stands at this moment, Villanova’s been even more accurate than Harvard was from 15 feet away with the clock stopped. The Wildcats have maintained a season FT percentage above the magic 82.18 mark ever since posting a 16-of-16 effort at the line at Georgetown in late January.

Collin Gillespie is shooting 89.4 percent, but veterans of the 1984 Crimson may be hoping to see Justin Moore or Jermaine Samuels at the line instead. Moore and Samuels are more normal free throw shooters who check in at 74 and 76 percent, respectively.

Then again, maybe Harvard’s heroes from long ago are more philosophical about Villanova’s pursuit. After the close calls recorded last year by not one by two teams, it appears this brand of suspense is becoming an annual rite. Despite the griping of oldsters, players today are actually better at making free throws than their predecessors were.

This season’s 71.7 percent shooting by Division I is the best ever recorded. Today and, possibly, in the days to come, Villanova will attempt to become the best ever in its own right.