After last Saturday’s victory over Louisville, Big Blue Nation has much to be happy about. Not only did the Cats register a near flawless statistical performance against the Cards, but they played with a fire and intensity that hadn’t yet been seen in the 2013-14 campaign. While many around the Commonwealth are still basking in the glory of beating Louisville for the fifth time in sixth attempts, there were some red flags to arise out of the annual Battle for the Bluegrass – mainly 3-point and free throw shooting. While most can accept the occasional 21% shooting night from three point land, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who will tolerate a 53% shooting performance from the charity stripe, especially given the free throw shooting woes to date. Unfortunately, it seems as though the 2013-14 Wildcats are what some would call a typical Calipari team, i.e., a poor free throw shooting team. Luckily for these youthful Cats, however, there’s ample time to improve this weakness and prove that they can break the Calipari free throw quandary. Given that many are looking for evidence of improvement, I researched past players and teams to see how, or if, they improved throughout the course of the season.
Given that Kentucky’s rosters have been completely dominated by first year phenoms as of late, I thought the best way to conduct this research would be to track the freshmen at the charity stripe throughout the season. I simply monitored their individual running average beginning at the fifth game and plotted them below. The data is divided up into three categories; players who improved, players who remained relatively constant, and players who regressed throughout the season. The only players listed are the ones who logged at least 50 free throws as a freshman, therefore Kyle Wiltjer didn’t qualify. Also Nerlens Noel was ommitted due to the mid-season injury. All of the data came via bigbluehistory.net.
Players Who Improved:
As previously stated, the six players listed above are the ones who improved throughout their freshmen seasons. Two of the above players, Doron Lamb and Brandon Knight, some of Calipari’s best free throw shooters, struggled with their free throws out of the gate. Given that they were elite shooters it’s difficult to place the blame on anything in particular. It could have been early season jitters or a lack of collegiate conditioning that caused the low percentages, but those two had their woes corrected before the tenth game of the season. The other four who improved; Anthony Davis, Marquis Teague, DeMarcus Cousins, and Terrence Jones, came into Kentucky as poor free throw shooters. Not one of the four was averaging over 60% from the line after five games in Kentucky blue. Even after twelve games, only one of the four was connecting on 60% of charity attempts. However, once “Camp Cal” began the percentages started to increase. Not only did their averages climb during this time, but they also remained steady throughout the remainder of the season.
Players Who Remained Constant:
The four players listed above came into Kentucky as average to above average free throw shooters and remained as such during their time as freshmen. The data does reveal that every single one of the four who remained somewhat constant during the season dropped from their early season average. I believe this can be explained with the growing sample size. As the data grows, it’s more likely that a percentage will drop, and free throws are not immune to this principle.
Players Who Regressed:
The three players charted above regressed from the charity stripe as their freshman season progressed. Both Daniel Orton and Willie Cauley-Stein were awful free throw shooters as freshmen, so this regression shouldn’t come as a surprise. However, the significant decrease from Bledsoe did come as a surprise. He started the season connecting on nearly 90% of attempts, but as the sample grew larger his percentage steadily decreased. In the season’s final game against West Virginia, Bledsoe hit only one free throw out of his six attempts to finish the season hitting 66% – a stark contrast to how he began his freshman season.
It’s no secret that free throws have been quite an issue for Calipari throughout his coaching career. Just ask his 2008 Memphis Tigers if free throws cost them any important contests along the way. Since 2003, only two Calipari coached teams have been able to crack the national top-150 in free throw percentage, 2011 and 2012 Kentucky. Not only did those teams exceed 71% at the line, but they were able to improve as the season moved along. If the “Players Who Improved” category is any indication, a majority of players will begin to improve during “Camp Cal.” The most likely candidate for improvement is James Young as he averaged 55% after the first five games and has steadily improved to 67% since. Currently, the Harrison Twins and Julius Randle are exceeding 70% from the line, and with a steady improvement from Young, this squad can become a good free throw shooting team with time.