CU Buffs chasing standard set by Harvard in 1983-84

NCAA free throw record still stands after 37 years

When a reporter from Boulder called Joe Carrabino at his Arizona home recently, he wasn’t surprised.

“I know exactly why you’re calling,” he said, followed by a laugh. “The free throw record.”

A partner and executive chairman with AEA Investors, Carrabino was the best player on the best free throw shooting team in Division I college men’s basketball history.

In nearly four decades, no Division I team in the country has been able to top the remarkable 82.2 percent clip at which the 1983-84 Harvard squad made its free throws.

Yet, with the NCAA Tournament on the horizon, there are two teams poised to break the mark, including the Colorado Buffaloes.

CU was leading the country in free throw percentage until a dismal 12-for-20 effort in the Pac-12 title game last Saturday knocked its percentage down to 82.16 – just a hair below Harvard’s mark of 82.18.

Meanwhile, Oral Roberts (82.35) has taken over the lead and could steal the record. Also lurking is Virginia (81.65).

“It’s nice it lasted this long, but records are basically made to be broken and you always have to respect someone else’s accomplishments,” Carrabino said of CU or another team potentially breaking the record.

For now, it is that Harvard team that sets the standard. The Crimson broke what was, at the time, a 14-year-old record held by Ohio State (80.9 percent in 1970). The 1984-85 Harvard team also topped Ohio State’s mark, at 81.1.

“It was an exceptional free throw shooting team,” said Frank McLaughlin, Harvard’s head coach from 1977-85. “I think it became contagious. They took a lot of pride in it, so the guys shot well. I don’t think they were ever thinking of a record and or anything like that, but they all knew they were very good free throw shooters.”

At the time, there was no 3-point shot in college basketball, so free throws were a big weapon, and 29 percent of Harvard’s scoring came from the line – compared to 19 percent for CU this year.

Carrabino, still the all-time leading scorer in Harvard history, led the way, with a percentage (90.5) that ranked second in the country to Indiana’s Steve Alford.

Bob Ferry (90.3 percent), Arne Duncan (86.7) and Keith Webster (86.7) were exceptional, as well, and Ken Plutnicki (75.3) wasn’t bad, either.

“When (Colorado) breaks the record,” McLaughlin joked, “my first phone call is going to be to Plutnicki and I’m going to blame him. He only shot 75 percent.”

Even with Plutnicki, it was tough for opposing coaches to figure out which player to foul in late-game situations.

In 1983-84, Harvard finished 15-11 overall and second in the Ivy League. They missed out on the NCAA Tournament, but it was a very good team – especially at the line.

“Number one, we had a lot of great shooters,” Carrabino said. “What people forget about that team, I believe we shot 52% as a team. …  As a team to shoot over 50% for an entire season is a pretty strong accomplishment.

“I think the other thing was we always practiced free throws under stressful situations.”

To better simulate game situations, McLaughlin never let his team get in a rhythm at the line in practice and free throws were often shot when the players were tired.

There was no secret to the success, however.

“It was really funny because I used to get tons of phone calls about it,” McLaughlin said. “Teams that didn’t shoot well would figure I had some magic drill or some crazy thing that we did.”

Currently Colorado assistant Mike Rohn said the Buffs’ staff gets asked for tips quite often, as well.

“We all joke that we should charge people to come do some clinic and just make up a bunch of drills,” Rohn said.

For CU, which has now posted six of the top-10 free throw percentages in school history under head coach Tad Boyle, there’s nothing secret about the success. Rohn said a key this year has been the efficiency of the Buffs’ big guys, such as Dallas Walton (83.9) and Evan Battey (83.2), but added, “In all reality, if you recruit good shooters, they’re going to shoot good from the line.”

Confidence is key, as well, and competition within the team was critical for Harvard.

“Once guys believe that they’re going to make it, they make it and no one wants to let the other guys down,” Carrabino said. “We knew that was an offensive weapon of ours, that if teams fouled us late in games, we were gonna be a hard team to beat because it was unlikely we were gonna blow it at the free throw line.”

Those Harvard players have carried their success from the court to life.

Carrabino was a sixth-round draft choice of the Denver Nuggets in 1985, but was cut during mini-camp and is enjoying a successful career at AEA.

Duncan was the Secretary of Education for President Barack Obama from 2009-16 and achieved some fame by playing multiple times in the NBA All-Star Weekend Celebrity Game.

Ferry, the older brother of former Duke star and NBA veteran Danny Ferry, has had success in banking and other ventures; Webster is the managing director of First Republic Investment; and Plutnicki is an editor with the New York Times.

“You bring back good memories because those guys have all gone on and been very successful,” McLaughlin said. “They’re all doing great. They’re a very good group and they all stay in touch. It’s a great group of kids.

Ultimately, the off-court success of those men is the legacy of that Harvard squad. But, they do still own a piece of the Division I record book.

This year, however, poses the greatest threat to Harvard’s record since 2011. That season, Wisconsin was ahead of Harvard, at 82.3, until going 13-for-19 in a 61-54 loss to Butler in the Sweet 16. That dropped the Badgers to 81.8.

Carrabino knows the difficulty of maintaining a strong free throw percentage, and he said he commends CU or any other team that can break Harvard’s record.

“I would have thought this would have been broken a long, long time ago, so we’re probably past our due date anyway,” Carrabino said with a laugh.