Aggie basketball coach Mark Turgeon did his best to avoid too much discussion Tuesday about his team’s recent prowess from the free-throw line. That’s why, after being peppered by reporters with questions about his team’s recent success, he eventually offered a quick quip to change the topic.
“I don’t want to jinx my guys here,” said Turgeon, “with you all writing too much about them.”
His final comment was made only half-jokingly, but it served its purpose of moving the conversation along to a different topic. And for good reason, as the Texas A&M men’s basketball team is on quite a roll from the charity stripe.
Aggie players have shot better than 80 percent in each of the last four games—all wins—and have ascended into one of the best free-throw shooting teams in the Big 12. Monday night’s 20-for-20 performance against Florida A&M kept the contests a two possession game down the stretch and eventually helped the Aggies (8-1) avoid the upset, 67-57.
Free throws have played an important role in the team’s recent winning streak in which the margins of victory have been six, one, eight (in overtime) and 10. While the eight-point margin against Alabama might look comfortable, the Aggies had to overcome a five-point deficit with less than 20 seconds to play to force the extra session.
Even then, it was a missed free throw by Alabama’s Mikhail Torrance with 12 seconds remaining that allowed B. J. Holmes’ long 3-pointer to send the game to an extra period. Turgeon could empathize with Tide coach Mark Gottfried, as Turgeon’s squad often struggled from the line last season.
“I’ve never gone through anything like we did last year,” said Turgeon of last year’s team that finished last in the conference in free-throw percentage. “That was pretty tough for me because we worked so hard on it.”
This year, it appears to be carrying over in games.
Except for the Tulsa loss in which the Aggies shot just 57.1 percent, the Aggies in all other games the Aggies are hitting 75.5 percent of their foul shots. That is a particularly good percentage when you consider Baylor lead the Big 12 last year with a 74.3 mark.
“We’ve been shooting them really well in practice, but it just hadn’t been carrying over to the games,” said senior Josh Carter, who is 39th in the nation with an 87.5 percent success rate. “But it’s starting to work for us. I’m sure we’ll struggle at some point, but you never know with us.”
As for coaching, Turgeon doesn’t believe in messing around too much with anyone’s form. Rather, he wants each player to make sure they follow the same routine, shot after shot.
“I don’t care what (their routine) is as long as it’s the same every time,” Turgeon said. “You have to have a checkpoint, whether it’s finish high, follow through, back rim, or something they say that makes them feel good about themselves. We ask them to do it during practice, because in the game if they’re thinking about their routine and checkpoint, they’re not thinking about the ramifications of the free throw.
“Knock on wood, the last couple of games we’ve shot them pretty well, but we work hard on it.”
Donald Sloan has also upped his percentage, making 33-of-40 (82.5 percent) so far this season after turning in a 67.2 mark during conference play last year. Aggie fans used to cringe when Sloan stepped to the line, but A&M’s players and coaches don’t blink twice these days when Sloan gets fouled.
“I don’t worry about Sloan,” Carter said. “Last year when he had his little funk, it was more mental. As long as he stays in his groove, he’ll be fine.”
Turgeon said the same goes for the rest of the team, as confidence may have as much to do with a player’s success as anything.
“I don’t want to get in their head because shooting is such a delicate thing,” Turgeon said. “I want guys to feel comfortable. It’s very important when you’re sitting over there with two minutes to go in a game for your guys to step up and knock them down.”
OTHER MEN’S BASKETBALL NOTES
Game time tonight against SMU is at 7 p.m….This will be the first time SMU (3-4) has traveled to Reed Arena, as the two teams have not met since the final year of the Southwest Conference (1995-96 season)…The Aggies travel to Houston on Saturday for a neutral site game against LSU at the Toyota Center. The game is part of the H-Town Holiday Shootout, with Texas and Michigan State also playing. Buying a ticket gets you into both games, and there are still seats available at toyotacentertix.com. For you cash-strapped students, $20 seats are still available, so get on it!...Chinemelu Elonu is one of six A&M players from the Houston area, but the 6-foot-10 forward said he won’t have many family members in the stands. His parents are traveling to their native Nigeria this weekend to visit family and friends during the holidays.