The story of perfection begins on the basketball floor at Mary Persons High, a plain gymnasium in the town of Forsyth, Ga. Brecklyn Greene, the younger sister, would stand just off the free-throw line, pulling her brother’s shirt tail and pushing him in the back. Jeffrey and Lori Greene would gather a few feet away, two parents feigning an argument while music blared from speakers in the background.
For the Greene family, this was a mental test, of focus and preparation, and in the middle of the chaos stood oldest brother Brannen, clutching a basketball in his hands and focusing on the rim in front of him.
“We used to really make it difficult for him,” Jeffrey Greene says.
On some days, Jeffrey Greene would call out certain situations. (Down one, three seconds left.) On other days, Brannen Greene would refuse to leave the gym until he made 50 free throws in a row — a drill that came after another long shooting workout. Jeffrey Greene, a former college basketball player at Pittsburg State, had read about sports psychology ideas and the importance of mental preparation, and re-called an especially memorable quote from Earl Woods, the famous father who had guided and nurtured the career of his son, Tiger.
“Always be in character,” Jeffrey says.
On Wednesday night in Waco, Texas, those family training sessions — and the mental lessons that accompanied them — came into play in the final seconds of Kansas’ 56-55 victory over Baylor. Brannen Greene stood at the free-throw line in the final seconds. The Jayhawks led by one. The crowd inside the Ferrell Center screamed and waved their arms.
“I just try to approach it like any other free throw, just take my time,” Greene says. “Take deep breaths; just live in the moment.”
Greene swished both free throws, which helped Kansas escape Baylor with a hard-fought Big 12 victory — and also extended one of the Jayhawks’ most impressive statistical streaks. Greene is a perfect 17 of 17 from the free-throw line this season, and he’s made 21 straight free throws dating back to last season.
“It’s ice-water every time,” Kansas forward Cliff Alexander says. “He’s going to knock it down.”
For Greene, a 6-foot-7 sophomore wing, the free-throw perfection has been the high point in a season that could be described as inconsistent. Among the highs: Greene knocked down five three-pointers at Georgetown, carrying the Jayhawks to a key nonconference road victory, and he finished with 12 points against Baylor in a career-high 29 minutes.
For the season, Greene is shooting 47 percent from three. But he has also been bothered by a persistent neck issue that was borne from a concussion suffered during the exhibition season. The neck discomfort comes and goes, Greene says, and this is partially why he’s played fewer than eight minutes in six games.
“When he can’t help the team win,” Jeffrey Greene says, “he’s hard on himself.”
Growing up in Georgia, Greene was the type of gym rat who would spend a rainy Christmas afternoon shooting in the driveway, or beg his father, a teacher, to open the gym at Mary Persons High for a workout. After a while, Jeffrey Greene figured it was more practical and efficient to install a half-court basketball setup outside the family’s home.
“His shot is not by happenstance,” Jeffrey Greene says. “There are some mental and some physical secrets that he does in preparation that are now just second nature.”
For years, Jeffrey Greene would emphasize certain aspects of his son’s shooting stroke. They would talk about trajectory and balance, and proper head placement. There were fewer basketball discussions last season, when Greene averaged 6.6 minutes per game as a Kansas freshman. But the Greene family relocated to Olathe last June — in part to be closer to family in Neosho and Joplin; in part to cut down on the commute to Allen Fieldhouse.
The Greene family, Jeffrey says, spent so much money traveling to Kansas games that it was “almost cost prohibitive to not move.”
The family’s new home has given Greene a closer support system — on Thursday night, he joined his family in Olathe for his favorite meal, seafood pasta — and the next step is to find consistency in Kansas’ rotation.
On certain days at practice, Greene will joke with Kansas coach Bill Self that he can make it through the entire season without missing a free throw. And while Self might point out that this is because Greene rarely gets to the free-throw line, the Jayhawks’ head coach has grown to appreciate Greene’s inner confidence.
“Basically, he has no conscience,” Self says, “which is a good thing with a shooter.”
At his core, Greene is simply a shooter, drilled and technical, armed with a consistent stroke, ready to spot up outside the three-point line on each possession. Which might help explain the following story. When Greene was growing up, he liked to go to the gym with his dad and see how many consecutive free throws he could make. Jeffrey remembers his son breaking the 70-mark on multiple occasions, but never making it past 78. Brannen’s memory is slightly different.
“I made like a 100 and something (in a row) when I was in high school,” Greene says.
The truth, perhaps, lies somewhere in the middle. But one thing is certain: Brannen Greene has not missed a free throw this season, and he doesn’t plan on missing one, either.
“It’s a realistic goal,” Greene said. “I think that would be amazing. That’d be really cool. I don’t know who’s done that before.”
Graham improving — Kansas freshman guard Devonte’ Graham, sidelined since Dec. 10 because of a sprained toe, is inching closer to returning to game action, Self said Friday morning.
Graham was set to practice on Friday morning, and depending on how his toe responded, Self said it was possible — though not likely — that Graham could see spot minutes against Texas Tech on Saturday at Allen Fieldhouse.
“I wouldn’t bank on it,” Self said. “I would still say, right now, he’s probably doubtful, but that may could become questionable. But I don't think it's probable."
After defeating Baylor on Wednesday night in their Big 12 opener, the Jayhawks took Thursday off. So Friday was one of Graham’s first opportunities to prove to Self and Kansas’ trainers that he could go full speed. If Graham is unable to play on Saturday, though, it does appear likely that he is close to returning in the next week. After facing Texas Tech, the Jayhawks play host to Oklahoma State on Tuesday night at Allen Fieldhouse.
Alexander has back issue — Self also revealed Friday that Alexander was affected by a back issue during Wednesday’s victory at Baylor.
Alexander finished with four points and one rebound in 20 minutes.
“He’s a tough kid and his back locked up on him Tuesday,” Self said. “He couldn’t practice; he tried to get out there and go, and then it was locked up the whole day.
“So we were lucky that we got the minutes we go out of him. He wasn’t effective at all in the game, in large part because of his back. (But) just his presence and his size definitely helped us win the game.”
Self said Alexander has dealt with back issues before and it generally takes three to four days before the issue goes away.
Texas Tech at No. 12 Kansas
When: 2 p.m. Saturday
Where: Allen Fieldhouse, Lawrence
Records: TT 10-5, 0-12 Big 12; KU 12-2, 1-0
Radio: KFH, 1240-AM, 98.7-FM
Texas Tech at No. 12 Kansas
Texas Tech: In his second season, coach Tubby Smith is trying to guide a program that remains in transition mode. The Red Raiders start three freshmen, and they entered Big 12 play with losses to Loyola and Houston in a three-game span. Texas Tech has been turnover prone all season — the Red Raiders’ turnover percentage ranks 265th in Division I — and they shoot 31 percent from three-point range as a team. As a result, Texas Tech ranks 229th in the country in offensive efficiency. For a Kansas defense that has struggled at moments, it should be a good matchup to lock in and come up with some stops on the defensive end. The Red Raiders’ best offensive option is Williams, who is shooting 39.7 percent from three.
Kansas: Wednesday, the Jayhawks received a lift from Traylor, who had 13 points and two assists before fouling out in 25 minutes. Traylor, who shot 67.4 percent as a sophomore, is shooting 46.7 percent this season. He’s starting because of his defense and energy, but some improved offensive production could help spur an inconsistent Kansas offense. While the Jayhawks have struggled inside for the most of the year, they lead the Big 12 in three-point field-goal percentage at .385. Mason, meanwhile, has 17 assists, four turnovers and five steals in his last three games. He has scored in double figures in each of KU’s last 11 contests.
RPIs as of Friday: Texas Tech 162, KU 2.