MADISON, Wis. — Most of Wisconsin’s basketball players shuffled off the team bus Saturday night and headed home, ready to put a 60-50 loss at in-state rival Marquette in the rear-view mirror with rest and relaxation ahead.
Wisconsin forward Ryan Evans was too distraught to go home, lest he be alone with his thoughts and no basketball hoop. Instead, the Badgers’ senior stepped off the bus and discretely made his way to the Southeast Recreational Facility, more commonly known on campus as the SERF.
For nearly 30 minutes, he stood at the free throw line, trying repetition after tedious repetition to find an answer for how a consistently good foul shooter could fall into an inexplicable slump. The mind is a powerful tool, and Evans is learning first-hand the tricks it can play when doubt seeps in.
“It’s tough to explain,” Evans said. “I do see what guys like Dwight Howard feel. I’m not really comparing myself to Dwight Howard. I used to look at those guys like, ‘How in the world?’ Now I’ve got an understanding.”
This season, Evans has attempted more free throws than any player on Wisconsin’s team. In other years, that would be considered a welcome sight for the Badgers. But Evans has made just 14 of 44 tries (31.8 percent), and his belief has wavered with each passing game.
Last season, Evans shot 72.6 percent from the free throw line, making 85 of 117 attempts. The year before, he shot 74.4 percent.
What has happened this season is something more akin to a pitcher having “the yips” and being unable to throw a strike from the mound. Twice, Evans has airballed a free throw attempt. And against Marquette, he made 1 of 9 tries. His lone make smacked off the backboard.
To further put into perspective how rough Evans’ free throw shooting has been thus far, consider that it would take 16 consecutive made attempts just to scratch back to 50 percent.
“He’s been trying,” Badgers coach Bo Ryan said. “It’s in his head right now. No kidding. I didn’t give you a news flash there. But it isn’t because he doesn’t care. It isn’t because he’s not working. It’s all part of what people go through.”
By any other standard, Evans is having a productive senior season. He has started all 10 games, is third on the team in points (10.3) and second in rebounds (7.0). He also has contributed 12 blocks and 11 steals. But his inability to make free throws has taken on its own life form.
The slump began during Wisconsin’s first game of the season against Southeastern Louisiana on Nov. 11 and has grown every game. That night, Evans made just 1 of 8 free throw attempts. He made 4 of 9 tries against Arkansas and 3 of 6 against California, but the Badgers won all three games.
The missed free throws reached a boiling point Saturday night in Milwaukee, when Evans’ eight missed attempts played a vital role in Wisconsin’s loss to Marquette.
“It’s kind of carried over,” Evans said. “I didn’t take it as seriously as I probably should have because it was just affecting me as an individual. It was really bothering me. Saturday night, to see it affect my team like it did, that really bothered me. I’m sure it bothered a lot of people. But I’m not the type to sit and mope around. I’m going to move forward and keep on doing things the right way.”
Ryan said the 6-foot-6 Evans hasn’t stopped taking the ball to the basket in an effort to earn a foul and more free throws. Evans is still one of Wisconsin’s most productive players around the basket, having made 43 of 94 2-point tries (45.7 percent).
“I’ve seen some guys that won’t, but no, he still makes his post moves,” Ryan said. “He hasn’t backed away from that because he knows he can’t being a senior and being a guy that the team is counting on.”
Despite Evans’ free throw line struggles, teammates are still voicing their unanimous support for him.
“I’m not worried about it,” Badgers guard Ben Brust said. “He’s proven it before. He’ll figure it out because he’s a basketball player. He’s a competitor. He’s going to do what he needs to do to make those shots.
“Every time he went to the line, I was like, ‘These next two are yours. You’ve done it before. Just keep doing it.'”
Evans’ next crack at the line in a game setting comes Wednesday at the Kohl Center when Wisconsin (6-4) plays Green Bay (3-5). The following day, he has a final presentation to give in his educational leadership class.
At this point, even Evans admits which one causes more stress is debatable.
“I’m probably more nervous at the free throw line now than I will be for my presentation,” Evans said. “It’s something I’m going to have to get through. It’s something I will get through, and I’ll do it by the Big Ten season.”