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December 31, 2012

Free-throw shooting struggles have dogged Cats

They may be free, but they can also be costly.

Kentucky learned that on Saturday when it missed missed more free throws (12) than it made (11) in an 80-77 loss at No. 4 Louisville.

Wildcats coach John Calipari downplayed the significance of free-throw shooting - as has been his custom - saying that despite the free-throw woes, UK had its opportunities to spring an upset.

"We didn't shoot free throws; it doesn't matter," Calipari said. "We were down four with however much time with the ball and had our chances."

But several Kentucky players pointed to free-throw shooting as a critical factor in costing the Cats a win.

And UK's performance continued a season-long struggle from the line. The Wildcats are shooting 63.3 percent from the free-throw line, which ranks 301st in NCAA Division I.

If that clip continued, it would be the worst a UK team has shot since 1988-89 (a team that made an abject 59.6 percent). The average free-throw percentage in those 25 years is 69.1.

For Calipari, that low percentage is more of a norm. Since he began coaching at Memphis 13 years ago, his teams have shot less than 70 percent from the stripe in all but two years, including the infamous 2008 title runner-up team that made 61.4 percent.

The average free-throw percentage for all Calipari's teams since he returned to the college game is 66.5 percent.

While Calipari's last two UK teams have shot well from the stripe - 71 percent in 2010-11, and 72.3 percent last year - this team has been well below that, mostly because the players who get to the line the most aren't the Cats' best free-throw shooters.

Archie Goodwin leads the team with 87 attempts. He's shooting 69 percent.

Next on the list is Alex Poythress (53 attempts, 64.2 percent), Nerlens Noel (46 attempts, 52.5 percent) and Willie Cauley-Stein (28 attempts, 35.7 percent).

UK does have two good free-throw shooters in Kyle Wiltjer (86.7 percent) and Julius Mays (95.2 percent), but they don't get to the free-throw line much. Combined, they account for only 36 of UK's 275 free-throw attempts (13.1 percent).

In nine of UK's 12 games, that pair has combined for four or fewer free throws. In games where the Cats must rely on their other core players, the odds of having a disastrous day from the line - like the one against Louisville - increases.

Moreover, the Cats aren't getting a ton of attempts from the line. Their 38.8 percent free-throw rate (free throw attempts divided by field goal attempts) ranks 98th in the country.

What's that mean for UK's chances in the long-term? Since 2000, national champions have averaged a 71.9 free-throw percentage and a 39.18 free-throw rate. These Cats are on par in terms of frequency, but are well on the low end in terms of efficiency.

The only one of the past 12 titlists to shoot worse than 69 percent from the line? The 2004-05 Connecticut Huskies, who shot 62.3 percent and had a low 34.5 free-throw rate.

However, that team made up for it in multiple other ways - it had one of the nation's best three-point shooting and offensive rebounding teams and the nation's best interior defense.

Can these Wildcats do enough to compensate for their free-throw struggles if they don't improve from the line? That remains to be seen.

But getting more points from the line would certainly help


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