EVANSTON-Standing at the free-throw line before practice Thursday, Dave Sobolewski nailed shot after shot.
It was a stark change from his performance the previous night, when the sophomore guard made only 3-of-8 from the line in a 55-48 victory over No.12 Minnesota.
"I'll be okay," said Sobolewski, refusing to dwell on possible reasons that his free throw shooting has fallen to 61 percent on the year, 13 percentage points below his average a season ago.
It almost makes sense, in a way. For a team whose offense and defense are so heavily predicated on teamwork, the Cats seem to struggle most when they are alone at the line.
Sobolewski, who has hardly been the only player to shoot poorly, pointed out the inherently individual notion of this part of the game.
"[Free throws have] nothing to do with the team," he said. "It's all about yourself."
Just a week ago, against Illinois, Northwestern made 26 of its 31 attempts from the line. When Minnesota visited Welsh-Ryan Arena on Wednesday, the team managed to hit just 53 percent (17-32) of its shots from the charity stripe. Luckily for the Cats, Minnesota was not much better. The Golden Gophers finished 7-of-17 on free throws.
Head coach Bill Carmody, who noted a drop in free throw percentages across the country, didn't seem to know why Northwestern is not making shots on a consistent basis.
"I wish I could tell you," he said. "You wake up one day, you're making [shots, or] you're not making 'em."
Despite the Cats' ability to pull off an upset over No. 12 Minnesota, the team cannot expect all of its opponents to shoot as poorly at the line. Northwestern has won two big games against ranked teams in the past week and nearly upset No. 2 Indiana as well. If the Wildcats continue to shoot 53 percent, however, this trend will likely come to an end.
Carmody knows this, and he is doing his best to find an answer to the problem.
"I'm trying all sorts of tricks," he said. "Ignore it, shoot 5,000 [shots], lock the gym [and say] 'you're not getting outta here till you make this amount.'"
As games against powerhouse teams like Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State draw closer, this Wildcat squad still has life. Sitting at 12-8 (3-4 Big Ten), Northwestern is very capable of making a run to the postseason. No, it won't be easy. The Cats will need to win all of their games against equal or inferior opponents and pull off an upset or two to earn an invitation.
But against upper-echelon teams like Michigan, shooting 53 percent from the line does not just mean a loss for Northwestern. It likely means a blowout.
When the Cats play those types of teams, making free throws is the way to avoid falling into an early insurmountable hole, Carmody said.
"If you're making your foul shots and [the opponent's lead is] 6 or 5, you feel okay," he said. "When you're missing those things, those 6-point leads can go to 12 or 13 [point leads]. All of a sudden, wow, you're almost out of the game."
If Northwestern loses because it cannot rebound effectively, that's fine. If Northwestern loses because its three-pointers are not falling, they'll live with it. But if Northwestern, a team that needs every possible point it can get, loses because it shoots below 60 percent from the foul line? That's embarrassing.
There's only so much help Carmody and the coaching staff can provide. After all the added practice and coaching tips, the players must find a way to execute on game day.
"They're all capable of doing it," Carmody said. "At this point, a lot of it is just from the neck, up. They gotta figure it out themselves and get it done."