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The Best Things in Life are Free

Immanuel Quickly currently shooting .915 from foul line

By Dr. John Huang

Kentucky’s prowess at free throw line is something Calipari looks to exploit

(LEXINGTON, Ky.) – Swish! Swish!

Long-term, die-hard Kentucky Basketball fans have noticed something distinctly different about this year’s team. They’re good at shooting free throws. In fact—prior to the game against LSU—this year’s Wildcat team had a collective shooting percentage of 78.9% from the charity stripe. That’s over ten percentage points higher than that of their opponents.

For Kentucky coach John Calipari, that works out to a decided advantage. It’s a luxury he hasn’t had throughout much of his coaching career. Calipari’s teams have traditionally been fair-to-middling from the free throw stripe. If you remember back to his days at Memphis, misfires from the line essentially cost him the national championship in the title game against Kansas. Likewise, his time at Kentucky has also been riddled with botched free throws at crucial times resulting in missed opportunities. Can anybody say P.J. Washington?

A good shooting free throw team gives Calipari reason to smile

Best free throw shooting team ever?

This year’s squad under Calipari has the opportunity to go down as the best free throw shooting team in school history. His best previous free-throw shooting team at Kentucky shot “only” 72.6% in 2014-15. The 2013-14 squad actually averaged the most trips (28.7) and makes (19.5) per game than any other. There’s still a long way to go in this season, but UK’s current free throw percentage (475-602) is ahead of the school record of 77.6% set by the 1978-79 team.

One of the stars of that 1978-79 UK team was Kyle Macy. The legendary Kentucky icon with the perfect hair and dry socks averaged 88.98% from the foul line over his entire Wildcat career. You may recall that Macy also coached at Morehead State after his playing days were over, so he knows a thing or two about the often-neglected aspect of free throw shooting.

Kyle Macy had a career free throw percentage close to 90% (photo credit big blue history.net)

“I don’t know why it’s so neglected,” he recently told me. “Free throw shooting has a huge impact on most game outcomes. No matter early or late in the game—by making free throws—you eliminate empty possessions and don’t give opponents opportunities to cut into leads or make a comeback. The importance becomes even more magnified in the NCAA Tournament because of the importance of each game.”

You are what your stats say you are

That fact is not lost on John Calipari. Having the luxury of so many outstanding foul shooters (Immanuel Quickley .915, Tyrese Mazey .823, Nate Sestina .767, Ashton Hagans .809, Johnny Juzang .833, Nick Richards .752) has caused the hall of fame coach to rethink his strategy going down the stretch in close games.

Ashton Hagans, at point guard, should shoot .809 at the line. Nick Richards, a big man inside, at .752 has been a pleasant surprise

“That’s why you don’t want to take a quick contested jump shot,” Calipari explained. “You’re a great free throw shooting team…we are a team that wants to get fouled. We want to go to the rim. We want to post the ball. That’s how we play. Someone says, ‘Why don’t you take thirty threes?’ Because we’re a great free throw shooting team. Most of the time, we’re going to get to the line more.”

Calipari imploring Tyrese Maxey (.823) to drive, get fouled, and get to the line

Why is this team so good at the line?

Why the sudden improvement this year in free throw fortunes? Calipari claims it has nothing really to do with a change in coaching or practice routines. He says he hasn’t been doing anything different. “Recruiting better shooters,” he once quipped.

Johnny Juzang (.833) is one of those better shooters Calipari has recruited

Assistant coach Joel Justus thinks it has more to do with the players’ current mindset than anything else.

“I think we have guys that are confident,” Justus said after a recent practice. “I think that they have had demonstrated performance of success making free throws in games. And that’s really the biggest thing is when you make them in games, you’re really going to feel confident stepping up. I think that when you look at Nick Richards, you talk about Ashton Hagans, you talk about Immanuel Quickley—guys that have the ball and have been in big-time situations—they’re going to be comfortable.”

Demonstrated performance by guys like Nate Sestina (.767) will lead to even more confidence at the foul line

You can teach old dog new tricks

Macy, who shot 91.23% from the line his senior year, said it is possible to improve your percentage through perfecting your technique. In other words, practice, practice, and more practice!

“We led the nation in free throw percentage several times when I was at MSU,” Macy added. “One year, the first exhibition game after we had led the country in free throw percentage, my team shot 2-of-19 from the line. Needless to say, I wasn’t happy. So all that week, I made everyone shoot using the same simplified routine we had worked on. The next game we were 19-of-21. Granted, it’s important the right people get to the line, but if all five playing shoot them well, it puts so much added pressure on the opponent.”

That kind of pressure is what Kentucky fans want to see. If this year’s team wins the national title, you can bet your bottom dollar that there will be some critical “made free throws” during the road to the championship.

Parts of this posting appeared in print publications of Nolan Group Media and Sports View America.

Dr. John Huang
Dr. John Huang is a retired orthodontist and military veteran. As a lifelong Wildcat fan, a fledgling author, and an occasional guest host of Just the Cats Radio, he's now living out his dream as a UK Sports columnist. Dr. Huang also covers professional sports on a regional level. You can follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs or contact him @KYHuangs@gmail.com. If you enjoy his writing, you can also read more at www.huangswhinings.com.
http://www.huangswhinings.com

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