Sharp shooters: As the men's game focuses on dunking, women are shooting free throws better

Published: Monday, Feb. 13 2012 9:01 p.m. MST

BYU guard Ashley Garfield shoots a free throw against Gonzaga last week. She is shooting 76.9 percent this year.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — No one would ever suggest that women are better basketball players than men. Men are stronger and faster, they jump higher, they are more athletic and physically more talented than women.

That's just the way it is.

But there is one aspect of basketball where women seem to have an edge over men.

Free-throw shooting.

That's right, women are slightly better than men when it comes to shooting from 15 feet from the basket.

In Utah, among the six universities playing Division I basketball, four women's teams are superior to the men.

If you look at the national statistics this year, there are four women's teams shooting above 80 percent compared to just one for the men — our own Weber State team.

There are 28 women's teams shooting above 75 percent compared to 26 men's teams. 134 women's teams are shooting 70 percent or better compared to 131 men's teams.

At the bottom, women also have a slight edge with just 9 teams shooting under 60 percent compared to 25 men's teams

The figures aren't much different, but the women appear to have a slight edge (note: the NCAA couldn't provide overall men's and women's numbers for this season).

It's no surprise to Jeff Judkins, who should know as much as anyone about men's and women's college basketball. After being a star player for the University of Utah, he played in the NBA for five years and was an assistant coach at Utah for 10 years before spending the past decade coaching women's college basketball at BYU.

When asked about the difference between men and women at the free-throw line, he didn't hesitate.

"I would say on the average women are better foul shooters than men," Judkins said.

He reeled off several reasons why — more practice, smaller ball size, fewer pressure situations, but he sees women as superior on the average.

"The best men shoot a higher percentage in the high 80s or 90s," he said. "But usually, the overall team is better with the women."

Judkins said when he first got into women's coaching, he ran into Geno Auriemma, the women's coach at Connecticut, who has won seven national titles and has nearly 800 career victories.

Auriemma had one piece of advice for Judkins — don't foul too much.

"He said that you can't foul as much as in the men's game, because the women make them," Judkins said. "I've really taken that to heart because girls do make foul shots at a higher percentage in a game. They have way more turnovers but shoot better at the foul line."

The best free-throw shooter to ever come out of the state was Utah Valley's Ryan Toolson, who was an incredible 94.4 percent from the line over three years (2006-09), just behind the NCAA career leader Blake Ahearn of Missouri State (94.6 percent).

But the second-best ever was Utah's Morgan Warburton (2005-09), who knocked down 88.3 percent of her foul tries in four years, just ahead of BYU's Jimmer Fredette (88.2).

Now helping at Utah as a video coordinator after two years playing in Europe, Warburton said practice, practice and more practice was the key to her success.

She said she used to shoot hundreds of free throws as a kid and competed in free-throw competitions every year, winning a national title when she was 12 years old.

Warburton isn't sure why women are as good or better free-throw shooters than men on the whole, except to say, "I think it might be the attention to detail that women have to have in the whole game because they're not as athletic and not as gifted as men. So they have to put in extra time and effort."

Here are some reasons why women might be a little better than men at shooting free throws, according to some local coaches and players.

Ball size

The official size of a men's basketball is 29.5 inches compared to 28.5 for women. That's a one-inch difference in the circumference, but only one-third of an inch difference in the diameter.

But does that one-third of an inch make much of a difference for a ball going through a hoop 18 inches in diameter?

Utah State coach Raegan Pebley, whose team is best among the women's teams in Utah and second-best overall, doesn't think it makes much of a difference.

"You're looking at math with the cylinder and the space, but I don't think so," she said. "Our hands are smaller and that's the main reason for the ball being smaller."

Judkins, however, says the slightly smaller ball is an advantage.

"You can miss it more and it will go in," he says.

Fundamentals

Like Judkins, Utah women's basketball coach Anthony Levrets has coached both men and women and he sees better technique among the women.

"Athleticism is not required to make a free throw," he says. "It is very much a technique thing and women shoot the ball every bit as good as the men do. There's no strength involved in shooting a free throw."

Weber State men's basketball coach Randy Rahe, who coaches the No. 1 free-throw-shooting team in the nation, believes women concentrate on fundamentals better than men.

"Maybe women are a little more fundamentally sound, especially at the collegiate level," said Rahe. "For men, it's turned into a 'get to the rim type of game,' so you don't see kids at a young age working on shooting. They've seen Michael Jordan and all the high flyers and everybody's trying to emulate them and do this fancy stuff.

"When I was growing up, I was watching Jerry West," he added. "Now it's Blake Griffin. I don't think fundamentals get taught like they used to."

Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak agrees, saying "Overall women are more fundamental when it comes to shooting if you watch a college basketball game. You go to a gym now and kids are spending a half an hour on dunks when they might only get two in their life."

Mental toughness

Rahe says he's always thought players who are excellent free-throw shooters are mentally tough.

"Free throws have a lot to do with being mentally tough and believing," Rahe said. "When your top free-throw shooters are making nearly every free throw, I think everybody else on the team gets confident."

Warburton agrees about the mental side of free-throw shooting.

"Really I think free throws are all mental," she said.

But when asked if women are more mentally tough than men, Warburton replied, "I don't want to say that."

Levrets says, "I think a ton of it is mental — it's like putting in golf. It's really a frame of mind of 'This is not that hard.' Obviously there's technique, but college basketball players should be able to make a 15-foot shot."

Pressure situations

Judkins believes pressure is less on women with the smaller crowds they generally play in front of.

"Players don't shoot it as well with fans yelling at you on the road," he said.

But Levrets disagrees.

"I don't think that has anything to do with it," he said. "If you're down one with two seconds to go, it doesn't matter if it's 10,000 people watching or 1,000 people, the pressure is to want to perform in that moment. I think there's people who handle pressure and those who don't handle pressure."

If basketball players could just emulate Warburton's approach to foul shooting, they'd all be a lot better.

"The way I used to look at it, it's just free points," she said. "It's just me, the ball and the basket. Sure the pressure can be different, depending on the game situation, but it's the same shot every time."

For men or women.

Email: sor@desnews.com

Free throw percentage

BYU Women 72.7

Men 71.0

Utah Women 72.0

Men 66.2

Utah State Women 76.5

Men 71.3

Utah Valley Women 70.1

Men 67.1

Weber State Men 81.0

Women 62.3

Southern Utah Men 72.5

Women 71.3

85 percent club

Top career free throw percentage among Utah collegians

Ryan Toolson, Utah Valley 2006-09 94.4 percent

*Morgan Warburton, Utah 2005-09 88.3

Jimmer Fredette, BYU 2007-11 88.1

*Jamie Peterson, Weber State 2000-02 87.9

Michael Smith, BYU 1984-89 87.8

Tony Brown, Utah State 1999-02 87.0

Jeff Monaco, SUU 1997-2001 87.0

Eddie Gill, Weber State 1998-00 86.6

Damian Lillard, Weber State 2008-present 86.4

*Devyn Christensen, Utah State 2009-12 86.2

Jaycee Carroll, Utah State 2005-08 86.2

Davis Baker, SUU 2007-10 85.7

Wayne Estes, Utah State 1963-65 85.6

Jimmy DeGraffenreid, WSU 1991-96 85.4

Davor Marcelic, SUU 1989-92 85.4

*Julie Krommenhoek, Utah 1994-97 85.1

Keith Van Horn, Utah 1993-97 85.1

Vince Washington, Utah State 1984-85 85.1

*women's playerF.T. percentage

BYU Women 72.6

Men 71.5

Utah Women 73.0

Men 66.5

Utah State Women 76.7

Men 70.8

Utah Valley Women 70.6

Men 68.3

Weber State Men 81.0

Women 62.1

Southern Utah Men 72.6

Women 71.6

85 percent club

Top career free throw percentage among Utah collegians

Ryan Toolson, Utah Valley 2006-09 94.4 percent

*Morgan Warburton, Utah 2005-09 88.3

Jimmer Fredette, BYU 2007-11 88.2

*Jamie Peterson, Weber State 2000-02 87.9

Michael Smith, BYU 1984-89 87.8

Tony Brown, Utah State 1999-02 87.0

Jeff Monaco, SUU 1997-2001 87.0

Eddie Gill, Weber State 1998-00 86.6

Damian Lillard, Weber State 2008-present 86.4

*Devyn Christensen, Utah State 2009-12 86.2

Jaycee Carroll, Utah State 2005-08 86.2

Davis Baker, SUU 2007-10 85.7

Wayne Estes, Utah State 1963-65 85.6

Jimmy DeGraffenreid, WSU 1991-96 85.4

Davor Marcelic, SUU 1989-92 85.4

*Julie Krommenhoek, Utah 1994-97 85.1

Keith Van Horn, Utah 1993-97 85.1

Vince Washington, Utah State 1984-85 85.1

*women's player

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