- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 24, 2009

Whatever its shortcomings (real or perceived), the Maryland basketball team is usually assured of the luxury of superlative free throw shooting whenever it finds itself in a close game.

The problem is making use of its greatest strength.

The Terrapins (13-5, 2-2 ACC) have received a stark illustration of the costs and benefits of their effective foul shooting since conference play began earlier this month. Make it to the foul line six times, as was the case Jan. 14 at Miami, and risk losing in the final possession. Attempt 24 free throws like in Tuesday’s defeat of Virginia, and an extra cushion emerges to help absorb an opponent’s late-game rally.

“It’s been a big topic in practice,” said guard Adrian Bowie, whose team is shooting 78.9 percent at the line. “You have to get to the line and stop settling for jump shots.”

Sounds easy — but given the Terps’ relatively diminutive roster, it’s hardly simple, especially with a visit to No. 2 Duke (17-1, 4-0) looming Saturday afternoon.

Left to their own devices, most of Maryland’s starters probably would not operate much in the paint. Junior guard Eric Hayes isn’t an interior player, and while senior forward Dave Neal is providing a needed interior lift, he functions much better when he doesn’t have his back to the basket.

Junior forward Landon Milbourne is undersized for a power forward, though he has displayed the ruggedness needed to thrive inside. Junior guard Greivis Vasquez adapts as needed, and Bowie (the team’s shortest player) is probably the Terps’ most comfortable slasher.

It should come as little surprise that Maryland, which entered the week ranked sixth in the nation in free throw percentage, averages only 18.4 attempts. That would be the Terps’ lowest figure since 1973-74, when they averaged 18.

“It definitely takes some effort on our part to maybe pass up a few open shots and get to the basket more,” Hayes said. “We’re definitely a more outside-oriented team, but we still need to… draw fouls and get to the basket.”

There’s no shortage of reasons why it’s a necessity. For the first time in seemingly decades, Maryland doesn’t possess a reliable inside option who can emerge as a brawny layup factory on most nights.

As a result, Maryland needs to uncover easy points somewhere, and it is well-suited to do so at the line. The superb percentage also permits the Terps to set up their press, which has helped generate a resurgence in transition scoring this season.

Maryland doesn’t have a physically imposing defender in the post, which leads opponents to plan to attack the interior. Turning the tables creates more opportunities for free throws and foul trouble for opponents, which Virginia endured when Mike Scott and Assane Sene both spent much of Tuesday’s first half on the bench.

“Guys try to force the ball in on us and try to [isolate] us on the post a little bit, especially with me and Dave to get us one-on-one in the post,” Milbourne said. “It got us in a little bit of foul trouble early and at the end [against Virginia], so if we can return the favor and get them in foul trouble and get to the line, it would be a good turnout for us.”

The best impetus for an uptick in aggression is how glaring a difference free throws make for the Terps. Maryland is 11-1 when it tries at least 16 foul shots, the lone loss coming in overtime last week at Florida State. Even then, the Terps had only 10 tries in regulation.

It could be especially important against Duke, a team known for its efficient defense and ability to fluster opponents with pressure. A flurry of Maryland jumpers, hardly the most reliable commodity this season, could only exacerbate matters.

“We want to shoot free throws,” coach Gary Williams said. “We’re a good free throw shooting team. Driving the ball is how you get there. Being able to post up and score is how you get there. You don’t get there by shooting jump shots.”

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