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San Diego State Basketball: Free-throw shooting is undeniably the Aztecs' biggest weakness

A glaring weakness in an otherwise top-10 caliber team.

Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

The loudest cheers in Viejas Arena during San Diego State's 57-48 win against the San Diego Toreros didn't come as the clock wound down on the Aztecs' sixth victory.

They didn't come when Dwayne Polee II led a second-half fast break and spun away from three defenders for a fadeaway baseline jumper.

They didn't come when Skylar Spencer rejected his fourth shot.

They came when Angelo Chol made a free throw with 9:04 remaining in the game -- sarcastic cheers for a team that had gone 1-9 until that point from the charity stripe.

"The cheers were funny, actually," J.J. O'Brien said after the game. "We knew we weren't making free-throws, but we can't worry about that in the midst of the game. We just have to play and find a way to win the game."

The Aztecs would proceed to make 11 of their next 17 to bring their free-throw percentage on the night to 48 percent.

Yup, that's less than half.

"I think this is part of mental toughness and having the ability to say, `I've just made 10 free throws,' in your mind," Steve Fisher said in post-game radio interview. "It's easy to say and hard to do. You have to say that you're a major Division I player and I can do more than one thing, and if they foul you, you make them pay."

It would be a shame to see this team on the cusp of reaching its first Elite Eight or Final Four -- something it has the ability to do -- and have the chance vanish with a clanked free throw. Or two. Or three. Or 14, like last night.

Polee and Aqeel Quinn have the most refined free-throw strokes, but their 67.9 and 61.5 clips resemble those of NBA centers.

And opposing teams will always have a chance to fight their way into the game late in the second half as long as Spencer and Chol are on the floor. Chol knocks down 42.1 percent of his free throws while Spencer makes just 33.3 percent of his prayers.

At least Chol has decent form, so one could reason he'll improve as the season progresses.

But Spencer lacks any recognizable form, standing on his tip-toes and wrist-flipping the ball with an insane amount of back-spin. So far he's shooting 42 percent from the line in college. Shaquille O'Neal -- one of the most gloriously terrible free-throw shooters of all time -- made 57 percent of his free throws during his three-season career at LSU.

Yikes.

Fisher said last night that he knows Chol and Spencer can make free throws because he's seen them do it in practice.

"They can't get it in their heads that they can't make a free throw," Fisher said. "You've got to go to the line, step to the line, know you're going to make it and make it."

Last night's performance from the line brings SDSU's season average to 62.9 percent, good for 24th among the AP top 25 teams and 296th among all Division I teams.

Here's how the top 25 teams rank in terms of free-throw shooting.

Rank Team FT %
T-1. Oklahoma Sooners 75.8
T-1. Illinois Fighting Illini 75.8
3. Iowa State Cyclones 75.7
4. Texas Longhorns 75.5
5. Michigan Wolverines 75.2
6. Miami Hurricanes 75.0
7. Maryland Terrapins 72.5
8. Virginia Cavaliers 72.4
9. Villanova Wildcats 72.3
10. Arkansas Razorbacks 70.7
11. Gonzaga Bulldogs 70.4
12. Wisconsin Badgers 70.1
T-13. Duke Blue Devils 70.0
T-13. Kansas Jayhawks 70.0
15. Arizona Wildcats 69.3
16. North Carolina Tar Heels 68.9
17. Utah Utes 66.7
18. Ohio State Buckeyes 68.6
19. West Virginia Mountaineers 66.3
20. Butler Bulldogs 66.0
21. Kentucky Wildcats 65.3
22. Wichita State Shockers 65.2
23. Michigan State Spartans 64.2
24. San Diego State Aztecs 62.9
25. Louisville Cardinals 58.4

It seems like just a matter of time before the Aztecs' struggles at the line will cost them a game. One could definitely argue they have already cost SDSU a game: the Maui Invitational championship game, when the Aztecs lost by two points while shooting 13-24 from the line. Other factors, like turnover problems and stagnant second-half offense, also contributed a great deal to that loss, though.

But the free-throw woes allowed Utah to claw its way back into the game and make a 53-49 SDSU win appear much closer than it was. And does anybody really think Fisher's squad was only nine points better than the Toreros last night?

The Aztecs travel to Seattle this Sunday for a tough road challenge against an undefeated Washington Huskies team. They'll need every point they can get -- especially the free ones.