Division II tournament at South Point kicks off holiday hoops tournaments

It may not be sexy, it never gets them on ESPN, but leading the nation in free-throw percentage is something the Rollins College Tars take great pride in.

Tom Klusman’s team, which is 9-1 heading into Friday’s Holiday Hoops Classic against Tarelton State at the South Point Arena, is making 86 percent of its tries from the foul line, the best in Division II. Four players are shooting 85 percent or better, led by sophomore forward Sam Philpott, who is a 93 percent shooter and is ranked 19th nationally.

“I think we have some pretty good shooters and we work on it,” Klusman said. “It’s been amazing, leading the country in a category like free-throw percentage. We’re very proud of that.”

The Holiday Hoops Classic, a Division II men’s and women’s tournament that morphs into a men’s Division I event next week, kicks off a second wave of college basketball tournaments in town over the next two weeks. Four events are scheduled, including Larry Brown’s return to coaching Southern Methodist as the Mustangs play in the Continental Tire Las Vegas Classic Tuesday at the Orleans Arena. Brown was suspended by the NCAA for the first nine games of the season and SMU was put on probation after recruiting violtions were found in the program.

Wyoming, which will play at UNLV in February, makes an early trip to Las Vegas Monday as the Cowboys face Marshall in the Global Sports Classic at Cox Pavilion. After Christmas, the South Point will host the D3 Classic, a men’s and women’s Division III event.

But it starts Friday with the Tars, who began the season 9-0 before losing to Eckerd, 67-62, last Saturday. Rolllins, which is ranked No. 16 in the NABC Division II poll, has used its prowess at the foul line to get off to its fast start.

“When you see guys making shots, it creates momentum,” Klusman said. “It becomes contagious.”

That wasn’t the case last year as the Tars shot just 66 percent as a team and Philpott was just a 46 percent shooter at the line as Rollins went 9-19. So how did it get turned around? How did Klusman manage to turn Philpott into twice as good a shooter from the line in only a few months?

“Sam’s a good shooter but he played sporadic minutes last year and he never got comfortable,” Klusman said. “He’d go out there, get fouled and I think he felt some pressure to make his free throws and when you’re playing with pressure on you, you’re not going to succeed. So we talked after the season and I told him he’s a good player and that he just had to relax, go out and play like it.”

Philpott said he couldn’t live with the fact he was a 46 percent free-throw shooter.

“It was embarrassing,” he said. “I knew I was better than that. So I spent the summer working on it and getting better. I changed my form and made it more compact. The ball started going in and I just kept repeating it and being consistent until it felt like second nature.

“I don’t even think about it now. I just go up to the line and I’m relaxed and I always believe the ball’s going to go in.”

Philpott, who averages 8.8 points a game and has made 25 of his 27 tries at the line, said leading the nation in free-throw percentage is a big deal to the players.

“It’s a source of pride for all of us,” he said. “Everyone hates to miss (at the line). And we know it’s going to help us win games because some nights the ball’s not going to drop when we’re shooting from 3 and our free-throw shooting will be there for us.”

Senior guard Sharif Almulla, Rollins’ leading scorer at 17.6 points a game, is shooting 87 percent from the foul line. Jeff Merton, a sophomore forward who is the Tars’ second-leading scorer at 15.3 points per, is hitting 85 percent from the line. Junior guard Deion Clark, who averaged 10.7 points, is also an 85 percent shooter at the foul line.

“They know it’s important and this group has worked really hard at it,” Klusman said of his team’s prowess at the stripe.

Klusman said the trip to Las Vegas comes at a perfect time for his team. He wants them to enjoy themselves, bond and play some different competition.

“We just finished with finals and the kids are pumped,” he said. “It’s neat to play someone else from a different part of the country on a neutral floor. It’s like going to an NCAA Regioinal only I think this is better, and I know I’m pprobably in the minority on this. It’s Vegas. it’s exciting and I love taking our guys on the road and experiencing things together as a team.”

Contact reporter Steve Carp at scarp@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2913. Follow him on Twitter: @stevecarprj

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