MILWAUKEE — When Mike Brennan took over as American’s men’s basketball coach during the offseason, he brought with him several ideas about what to change within the program. Most notably, of course, he installed a deliberate Princeton offense that represented a radical departure from the players’ previous scheme.
But perhaps one of his biggest early contributions was convincing starting center Tony Wroblicky to change his free-throw mechanics. Wroblicky, a 6-foot-10 load in the post, was one of American’s most frequent free-throw shooters a year earlier — and also one of the team’s worst. He had developed a nasty habit of bringing the ball too far back behind his head, which led to nearly as many misses as it did makes.
It was, in a word, ugly.
"Over the summer, coach Brennan first started working with me," Wroblicky said. "He saw my form was pretty bad, to be honest with you."
Brennan suggested Wroblicky try shooting his free throws one-handed to iron out some of the kinks. Wroblicky, a lefty, assumed the change was only temporary and wasn’t sure it would even work. In the second game of the season, for example, he made just 3 of 9 free throws and airballed two attempts.
Over the course of time, however, the free throws started to drop. And Wroblicky stuck with the unusual method, which has become quite a curiosity in every game he plays.
"I got people texting me like ‘What are you doing that for?’" Wroblicky said. "It’s been pretty funny. But it’s going in. It’s working."
Wroblicky will try to lead No. 15 seed American (20-12) to an upset of second-seeded Wisconsin (26-7) when the two teams play in a NCAA tournament West Region opener in Milwaukee at 11:40 a.m. CT Thursday.
Wisconsin fans can relate to watching a player endure free-throw troubles — both mechanically and mentally. Last year, Badgers forward Ryan Evans struggled so extraordinarily from the line that he adopted a jump-shot free throw. Evans shot 42.6 percent from the line for the season.
Wroblicky, meanwhile, has experienced significantly better results. This season, he is hitting 72 percent of his free-throw attempts. As a junior a year ago, he shot just 52.2 percent. In fact, before this year, he was a career 55.0 percent free-throw shooter (65 for 118).
"He worked on it so much that he got comfortable shooting it," Brennan said. "I give him a ton of credit. For someone to change their shot and change it that dramatically in a way that everyone notices, you just have to get comfortable shooting like that in games."
Free throws, however, are only part of the story when it comes to Wroblicky’s game. He also happens to be the Patriot League’s defensive player of the year, a big man who can dominate a team defensively at the rim and excel offensively as a passer and scorer. He averages 12.2 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game. In addition, he shoots 58.8 percent from the field, which ranks among the national leaders.
That means Wisconsin had better be prepared to face a skilled player who does multiple things well on the floor.
"He dictates the entire offense," American guard Kyle Kager said. "We all read and react based off of things that he does on the court. And defensively, he just stops everyone from driving to the lane. The kid gets so many blocks a game, makes big plays offensively. So he’s a tough matchup defensively for the other team. But he also helps us a lot on the defensive end. He rebounds. He does all the little things for us."
Wroblicky will likely begin the game matched on Badgers 7-foot center Frank Kaminsky, who is equally adept at affecting the game in different ways. Wroblicky said his biggest goal defending Kaminsky was to take away open 3-pointers and make him work for touches in the post. Kaminsky is Wisconsin’s leading scorer (13.6 points per game) and rebounder (6.4 rebounds per game).
"He’s going to get his shots up," Wroblicky said. "You’ve just got to try to contain him as best as possible."
Kaminsky, too, noted that he had studied enough tape on Wroblicky to know his tendencies at this point.
"He uses his body well, and he’s a great passer," Kaminsky said. "He’s got some good hook shot moves in the post. Obviously, if he’s the defensive player of the year in their league, he’s a good defensive player. I think it’s going to be a good matchup."
With four American players averaging double figures in scoring, Wroblicky is only one piece to the puzzle that makes the Eagles go. But for American to spring the upset, he’ll have to come up as big as his 6-10 frame — at the free-throw line and all facets in between.