So you think you are a better free throw shooter?

With the team’s heartbreaking loss to FEU still fresh on every Green Archers fan’s mind, the issue of poor free throw shooting is something that seems easier and easier to keep harping on. Let me start by saying that this biggest chink in the team’s armor definitely needs to be improved on, especially in light of the team’s two overtime losses where a point or two could have spelled the difference between a win and a loss.

But let’s look at the other aspects of that game.  Leading by 13 with two and a half minutes to go, the team seemed to let up on their aggressive style of play that allowed them to put up that lead, trying to milk the clock instead of going for the kill. They also acted tentatively and committed costly turnovers. In turn, the Tams caught fire and forced overtime, eventually coming away with the win.

Again free throw shooting needs to be improved, but let’s play a different version of the “what if” game which becomes easier to do when the discussion veers toward the issue of missed free throws. Obviously the immediate and most common question would be, what if La Salle made those free throws down the stretch? Would they have definitely come away with the win? Maybe. But with almost a week gone by and the loss still weighing heavily on my mind, I start to ask myself, If the Archers made those free throws, would that have prevented Terrence Romeo’s clutch play from kicking into fifth gear? Maybe not. My point being, the “what if” game can go on and on, especially after a loss. Some like playing it, others find it futile. Let’s leave it at that.

Let’s look at some stats to sprinkle some sanity and objectivity on the emotions fans feel after such a loss: for players who have attempted more than 10 free throws per game, there has been clear improvement from last season. Arnold Van Opstal’s average has jumped from 56% to 81%, while Norbert Torres has been averaging 73% compared to last season’s 63%. Though it goes without saying that Jeron Teng needs to figure his Achilles heel out since he is averaging only 26% compared to last year’s 57%

Now I use the words “figure out” since, as the old hoops saying goes, it’s a mental thing. Which seems to be a clear conclusion since the players do well during their practices. Our best shooter, Almond Vosotros, missing two clutch free throws also makes me feel safe to assume this. They don’t call the free throw line the loneliest place on the basketball court for nothing. Personally I refuse to keep harping on the team’s free throw shooting for a couple of reasons. One, I sure as heck know how hard it must be, just by imagining, to stand all alone on that line in front of thousands of cheering and jeering fans, feeling that pressure. So I don’t think one more voice demanding and criticizing the team purely for missing free throws would make a difference. I think it’s safe to assume the players are well aware that they need to improve on this. Again, since it is a mental thing, I leave it to the players to figure out for themselves. Unless they hire me to give them advice on it, which I am sorely not qualified for.

Secondly, I’m a silver lining kind of guy. So sue me. I refuse to second guess the team and its coaching staff because I have seen vast improvements in so many aspects since the recent Filoil tournament. The discipline on defense and the different defensive looks the team comes up with as the need arises (that surprising mild press the Archers did on the Blue Eagles that was critical to that comeback win comes to mind), the emergence of Van Opstal as a more aggressive offensive option, the overall aggressive play of the team by pushing the ball at nearly every opportunity (making good use of one of the team’s main strengths since last season, rebounding), to name a few.

Lastly, I’m not a fair-weather fan who calls the team “championship caliber” after wins, but gives up all hope of even making the Final Four after each loss. I know the Green Archers aren’t invincible, and I can live with that. The same way players just have to live with the breaks of the game. I also find it difficult to question the team’s desire to win each time I see them diving on the floor for a loose ball or seeing the anguish on their faces after a loss. This team has made great strides in such a short period, and the season is not even halfway done. And with the upcoming break after the first round because of the FIBA tournament which I see as a wild card, a break that may help some teams and be detrimental to others (remember how the relatively long break turned out for the unbeaten UE team in season 70 because it had to wait for whom they would play against in the finals?), I know this team will only get better considering they are a team that still needs to continue to learn the new system.

I’m not one to make excuses for the team as well. They still need to improve on a number of things, such as running their offensive plays and especially closing out games down the stretch. But coach Juno Sauler has earned my highest respect for how he’s already transformed this young team, given the short period of time he’s had. Sure, many wish that transformation was currently reflected in the standings at 4-0 instead of 2-2 (especially since those two losses were in overtime), but it’s the many little things I see on the court as the game is played out that keeps my spirits up. And as for the free throw shooting, which I repeat is indeed a huge aspect that needs to be improved, again let’s leave the players to figure that out and continue to work on it (does anyone seriously think they’re not doing that already?), whether it be mentally or in terms of shooting technique, drills, etc. Unless anyone out there thinks it’s easy to stand on that line or who think the players still need to be reminded of it. After all, it’s easier to make those free throws while cheering from the stands or watching in front of a TV set right?