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Let’s Talk About Free Throws, Freshmen

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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

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.

Article written by Jonathan Schuette

20 Comments for Let’s Talk About Free Throws, Freshmen

  1. hendoblue
    8:10 pm January 1, 2014 Permalink

    Statistics and graphs are nauseating to me. I find it hard to believe that Andrew Harrison is shooting over 70% from the line. But he definitely is the one player who has to improve at the line and be very good by season’s end. Because he has the ball in his hands most of the time. And also Aaron and James Young must be good foul shooters.

  2. jimmydikes
    8:24 pm January 1, 2014 Permalink

    Do believe that our guards will improve as the season progresses. Seems to me that it is probably 95% mental, as they all tend to have pretty good stroke. Just keep driving it to the nail.

  3. Do whut?
    9:03 pm January 1, 2014 Permalink

    As usual a little research goes a long way towards finding the truth. In reality college free throw shooting percentages have been consistently 69% for over 50 years. In his first three seasons at Kentucky Calipari coached teams have averaged 70% from the charity stripe. Overall from the year 2000 when Cal began coaching at Memphis his teams have averaged 66.7% from the free throw line. When compared to the overall college average over half a century that can hardly be called “struggling”. The bad free throw shooting chestnut is nothing more than an old fans’ tale so to speak. In other words your premise is wrong, wrong, wrong.

    • Jonathan Schuette
      9:52 pm January 1, 2014 Permalink

      Incorrect on a number of fronts.

      First, Cal’s first team at UK team didn’t shoot 70%. They shot 66.9%, good for 239th nationally. Last year’s team shot 64.2%, good for 313th. It’s also silly to average different teams’ shooting percentages.

      Second, why do you believe that shooting 66.7% from the line (it’s 66.4%, if you use your silly practice of averaging teams, by the way) is acceptable? Why do you believe that being ranked around 250th-270th in D-1 (depending upon the year) is acceptable. This isn’t a philosophical issue like forcing turnovers or defensive rebounding, it’s free throw shooting, something you should strive to be better than average at.

      So, in other words, your premise is wrong, wrong, wrong.

  4. Real UK Fan
    9:08 pm January 1, 2014 Permalink

    It is difficult to understand why an otherwise decent shooter does not shoot a better percentage of free throws. However, as pointed out above the average in college basketball is much less than a person would expect. Of course, Coach Cal’s teams are not usually anywhere near the best in college basketball when it comes to free throw shooting. I believe that more time should be alloted to free throw practice and in some cases, some players need to be coached into slight modifications to their free throw shooting technique. When it comes down to championships free throws can often be the difference.

  5. 2mites
    9:23 pm January 1, 2014 Permalink

    If we look at the overall shooting percentage of this team it is not hard to see that free throws are just following the overall shooting. This is a poor shooting team and we win from in the paint and offensive rebounds. Just look at Young last game he missed his first 6 shots. This team is not gonna wow anyone with lights out shooting and it just carries over to free throws.

  6. Cat in SLC
    9:24 pm January 1, 2014 Permalink

    The reason this is important stuff is that UK is the #1 team in the country at GETTING to the foul line. Therefore getting better at making them, once there, is just free points as the name free throw would suggest.

  7. Do whut?
    10:19 pm January 1, 2014 Permalink

    Schuette you are correct in including last year’s average which I mistakenly left out of my aggregate numbers but they are indeed aggregate numbers because your premise was all-inclusive, that Calipari teams have struggled at the line “throughout his career”. This being the case how can I not average the numbers in question? Had you said some of his teams struggled then there would be no rub. Then again for what coach can’t the same be said? Now you mention D-1 rankings as if Calipari coached teams aggregate numbers (which I know you don’t like) are near the overall collegiate average. You also build up straw men when you imply that I’m somehow okay with those rankings. I’d love it if our teams always led national collegiate numbers but the truth is still that “throughout his career” Calipari teams have not struggled from the charity stripe based on a more than 50 year collegiate average. Thus your premise remains wrong, wrong, wrong. For accuracy last year’s numbers would bring down that 66.7% but not markedly so.

    • Do whut?
      10:22 pm January 1, 2014 Permalink

      Aren’t near the national collegiate average that is.

    • Jonathan Schuette
      10:40 pm January 1, 2014 Permalink

      Except a lot of his teams do struggle. If you leave out his two 71%+ seasons (his only two seasons above 69%), his aggregate average falls to 65.6, well below 69% when you consider how tightly teams are distributed in FT%.

      I think we’re on two separate pages in what defines a struggle. In terms of free throw shooting, I consider a struggle to be shooting well below the D-1 average in relation to other teams. Also 8 of his past 15 teams are below that 66.7% threshold, so I think that constitutes as struggling.

    • twocoach
      12:11 pm January 2, 2014 Permalink

      “If you leave out his two 71+% teams…” Johnathan Schuette, did you really just say that? OF COURSE if you leave out the teams that were good at shooting free throws then all that is left is teams that were not. Good grief.

      That said, Calipari is not a good teacher of free throws. Many of his teams have struggled significantly and it cost him a national title in 2008. My assumption is that he uses dedicated practice time to teach offense, defense, situations, etc… and leaves a large percentage of free throw time to the players to do on their own time.

      Shooters make shots from the floor because their body’s muscle memory takes over and they don’t have to think. When it is just them standing at the line young players simply think too much. They are usually going through all the mental checklists they memorize in hopes of improving and it just becomes a downward circling spiral. It’s hard for a kid to shut their brain off and keep it out of the way of their body. Uk has a bunch of players who are more emotional (Harrisons, Randle, WCS) and these types of players typically struggle to just check out mentally and let their body go through the right motions.

      I don’t see the Harrison twins as kids that have good control of their emotions. They remind me of Demarcus Cousins who was always throwing his hands up and whining about calls and getting involved in petty stuff with the opposing players. And look at Cousins numbers. He improved initially then as conference season wore on and the book was out on him to get him frustrated, his FT% dropped the last half of the year. I expect the same from the Harrisons.

      Young is a more level headed player and doesn’t have the emotional highs and lows. I would assume that his numbers will continue to improve through the end of the year.

    • Jonathan Schuette
      3:40 pm January 2, 2014 Permalink

      @twocoach The only purpose of me leaving those two years out was to prove to @Do Whut? that two very large positive outliers don’t make up for the fact that Cal’s teams have been very poor at the line traditionally.

  8. Do whut?
    10:40 pm January 1, 2014 Permalink

    Jonathan, truth is I’m having a rough day and need not be so persnickety so I apologize. I’ll just leave it at we both would love to see improvement in the numbers. Go Cats!!

  9. Was this actually written by that chic who used to write the “Statistically Speaking” posts?

  10. rockatao
    6:52 am January 2, 2014 Permalink

    The biggest factor in team FT% is who takes the free throws. When a poor shooter, let’s say Cousins, takes nearly 30% of the team’s free throws, that team is not going to have a great percentage. In general, Calipari does not recruit great shooters. He wants athletes who can take it to the rim. And so, who gets fouled the most? The guys who take it to the rim, not the outside shooters. One thing that surprises me about this year is that (so far) opponents have not employed a Hack-a-Willie defense in crunch time.

  11. twocoach
    12:13 pm January 2, 2014 Permalink

    And WOW, is that really all the more people that attended the Bayor game in Dallas? I knew the weather had a negative effect but that is incredible. That would be strange to play in such a giant, empty arena.

  12. bigblue091812
    4:06 pm January 2, 2014 Permalink

    Numbers don’t lie and for the year Randle, Young, Aaron, Andrew and Alex are all 65% plus, they will get it right and be fine and we will be shooting 69% plus as a team come march. By the way, how many of you caught dumb ass Doug G on ESPN stating why would you throw the ball into Johnson down on the block because he’s no scoring threat down low, is he really that stupid?

    • DH
      4:27 pm January 2, 2014 Permalink

      I thought he said, “Why would you double-team Johnson” because he can be guarded one-on-one, unlike Randle. When they double-teamed Johnson on the play “dumb ass” Doug G (I like the nickname, btw) was referring to, they left Young, I think it was, wide open for a three. But yeah, he did say Johnson was no scoring threat, which still kind of remains to be seen since he hasn’t had a ton of time to showcase it. I DO know he couldn’t jump over the j-town phone book, though. Without seeing the actual numbers and just going by my (bad) memory, Johnson had more PT in the UL game than any other game this season.

  13. BRnF'fort
    5:57 pm January 2, 2014 Permalink

    Bottom line – free throws win close games! If you can’t make them- then you lose close games! Kids these days are more interested in throw downs than fundamentals! All about trying to make ESPN Top Ten! However, I think UK’s free throw shooting woes are mostly mental and lack of concentration. These guys clank a shot and then swish the next attempt. They toe the line and rush their shot. Cal’s teams have never shot free throws with proficiency. I say hire Kyle Macy as a special assistant and let him teach them the proper mechanics (even included pulling up baggy socks) 🙂 Until they improve their free throw shooting, if I were the opposing coach and behind late in the game I’d apply the ‘hack attack’ and make then beat me from the line! GO #BBN!

  14. bigblue091812
    8:11 pm January 2, 2014 Permalink

    The last fews games has been terrible at the line, I don’t know the reason but throught 13 games Aaron is shooting 77%, Randle 72%, Andrew 71% and Young 66%. These are the 4 that should get to the line the most and I do think they’ll get it going back in the right direction but Alex does need to get back to shooting FT’s like last year and we all know WCS needs to work on it. I also feel going forward we will see Lee, Johnson and Willis will get more playing time, not all in every game but in different matchups.