SPRINGFIELD, Mo. -- Before every single free throw he shoots, Blake Ahearn wipes off both his hands on his shorts, dribbles three times, flips the ball out in front of him with a healthy dose of backspin, catches it with two hands, holds it for half a second, then releases.
Nathan Papes/Missouri State
Missouri State's Blake Ahearn has made 409 of 430 career free-throw attempts -- a cool 95.1 percent.
That's no exaggeration. Over his three-plus seasons at Missouri State, Ahearn has taken 430 free throws -- and made 409 of them. That's 95.1 percent, folks.
The 6-foot-2, 190-pound guard from St. Louis has led Division I in free-throw shooting percentage in each of the past three seasons. If he does it again this year, he'll become the first player in NCAA basketball history to lead the nation in a major statistical category four years in a row.
"What he's doing is on par with what Tiger [Woods] has done in golf, what [Roger] Federer has done in tennis," said Missouri State coach Barry Hinson. "I'll get to say that I coached the greatest free-throw shooter in the history of the sport."
I got a chance to watch Ahearn and his teammates take on Illinois State on Tuesday night. I must say, I'd never been excited to watch somebody shoot free throws before. I was a little nervous that Ahearn wouldn't get to the foul line -- that did happen two games in a row last month. But just before the midway point of the first half, Ahearn got hacked on a pull-up jumper and went to the foul line for two shots. He knocked down both and ended up making all five of his free throws in the Bears' 73-61 win over the Redbirds.
Ahearn wasn't born a brilliant shooter. He spent countless hours as a youngster honing his shot at a YMCA.
"I was never the quickest player, or the strongest," said Ahearn. "I knew I had to really develop my skills if I wanted to become a good player."
Ever since the fourth grade, Ahearn has kept a record of every single shooting workout he's done -- he writes the details down in a little black book. At this point in his career, he takes 1,000 shots per day, every single day -- including 102 free throws. Why 102?
Illinois State, located in Normal, Ill. (pop. 50,000), is the oldest university in the state of Illinois. Like Missouri State, it has approximately 20,000 students. But unlike Missouri State, Illinois State is in the lower tier of Missouri Valley men's basketball.
This season the Redbirds are 12-13 overall and 4-10 in the Valley, second-to-last place.
Coach Porter Moser, a Creighton alum who's in his fourth year at the helm, has some talent on his squad. The Redbirds like to push the ball down the floor, then spot up their shooters around the 3-point arc. But they could use a star player, a go-to guy -- a Blake Ahearn.
Illinois State's biggest star was Doug Collins, who played for the Redbirds from 1970-73 and averaged 29.1 points per game during his career there. The school honored Collins before Saturday's game against Bradley, officially naming its home floor "Doug Collins Court."
"I finish every workout with a one-and-one," Ahearn said.
Back in high school, Ahearn gave a verbal commitment to play for another Missouri Valley team, Southern Illinois. But he hadn't visited Missouri State yet, and once he did, he fell in love with Springfield and the Missouri State coaching staff.
"Springfield's like a smaller version of St. Louis," said Ahearn. "I just felt at home here."
This city -- the third-largest in the state -- and this school of just over 20,000 students has fallen in love with Ahearn, too, over the past four years. He's made himself into quite a player, beyond just free-throw shooting. Once primarily a catch-and-shoot guard, Ahearn can now put the ball on the floor effectively and take it to the rim or make a pull-up jumper, as he demonstrated in collecting a game-high 20 points on Tuesday night. Overall he's averaging 15.4 points per game this season, and shooting an outstanding 49.2 percent from 3-point range as well.
Hinson attributes all of Ahearn's success to his tremendous work ethic -- which he says is typical of Missouri Valley players.
"Players in this league are usually under-recruited overachievers," said Hinson. "They'd probably be the sixth or seventh men on a team in a league like the Big 12 or the SEC. Not very athletic, but highly skilled. And they have the biggest hearts. They play hard; they play together, and they have fun."
Ahearn's having a lot of fun in his final season in Springfield. He's having another fantastic season at the free-throw line -- so far he's made 85 of 90, 94.4. percent. But, rather amazingly, there are three players ahead of him in his category right now -- Butler's A.J. Graves (97.1 percent), Utah Valley State's Ryan Toolson (96.1 percent), and Gonzaga's Derek Raivio (95.1 percent).
Drive 3: Des Moines, Iowa, to Springfield, Mo.
Ahearn is trying not to pay attention to what the others are doing -- although that's pretty hard when he gets phone calls every night from friends and family with updates. He's more concerned with leading his team to its first NCAA Tournament berth since a Sweet 16 appearance under Steve Alford in 1999. Right now, the Bears are 18-7 overall and stand alone in third place in the Valley with a conference record of 9-5. With a signature win over No. 4 Wisconsin earlier this season, Missouri State would figure to be a pretty good bet to get an at-large bid if it finishes the season strong.
But the Bears are taking nothing for granted. They thought they were a lock to make last year's Big Dance, with a No. 21 RPI ranking. Instead they became the highest-ranked RPI team ever to not make the field.
"I'd trade every record I have, every award I've gotten, to get to an NCAA Tournament," Ahearn told me.
If only a bid to the Big Dance was determined solely by hard work, or heart. But it just might be determined by a Blake Ahearn free throw.
If that's the case, Missouri State's got it made.
COMING THURSDAY: The coach factor
Kieran Darcy is an editor for Page 2. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.