Perhaps the most perplexing aspect of Kentucky’s 2022-23 basketball season to this point: free-throw shooting.
What the heck is going on with these Wildcats at the foul line?
Before the games began, this looked like it could realistically be UK’s best free-throw shooting team in program history. The track record was there. It’s a roster stacked with key players who have shown proficiency at the foul line, either here at Kentucky or at their previous stops.
The reality, so far: these Cats are not good at the stripe.
The victory over Michigan last Sunday was yet another example. UK finally knocked off a big-name opponent, yes, but the final result — 73-69 at the end — was closer than it should have been. The Cats went 10-for-20 on free throws. Abysmal. The two players who handle the ball the most, Sahvir Wheeler and Cason Wallace, were a combined 2-for-8. Appalling.
Wheeler was 2-for-6 and clanked the front end of two one-and-ones in the final 41 seconds. Wallace’s only two attempts came with 6 seconds left, both misses.
This time around, the late bricks didn’t matter. The Cats still won.
But that won’t always be the case in the future, and it’s certainly hurt this team in the past.
That double-overtime loss to Michigan State in the Champions Classic last month? UK was 16-for-24 on free throws. Wallace went 1-for-2 with 14 seconds left in regulation to put the Cats up two. Michigan State forced overtime with a basket on the other end. Wallace (again) went 1-for-2 with seven seconds left in OT to (again) put the Cats up two. Michigan State (again) forced a second overtime with a basket on the other end. In either instance, making two — and thus forcing the Spartans into a situation where they needed a three — could have been the difference.
That’s not to pick on the freshman. He did plenty right in that game, and he’s helped carry the Cats all season, that Michigan game included. And this is a team-wide issue, after all.
Going into the game against Yale on Saturday, the Cats were shooting 68.4 percent from the line. That ranks 11th-best of John Calipari’s 14 Kentucky teams, the worst in nine years. UK is well outside the top 200 nationally.
Wallace came in with the reputation of an outstanding free-throw shooter. He’s at 50 percent. Wheeler has worked diligently in the area, shooting 78.0 percent last season. He’s at 61.9 percent right now. Jacob Toppin was at 74.5 percent last season, 78.0 percent the year before. He leads UK in makes and attempts in 2022-23, but he’s shooting just 64.5 percent. The two players tasked with backing up Oscar Tshiebwe at center — Ugonna Onyenso and Lance Ware — are a combined 8-for-18 (44.4 percent).
The sample sizes are small to this point, but the worries are getting real.
“We’ve worked on ending games,” Calipari said after UK beat Michigan. “We were better today, except we missed free throws. Again. Which is what we did to Michigan State. We can say it was this, it was that, we should’ve done this — we make free throws, none of that stuff matters.”
In the locker room after Sunday’s game, Calipari challenged the Cats to do better.
“Getting this win and knowing that we could have made some more is definitely going to wake us up,” Wheeler said afterward. “Games like this — especially in conference play and the NCAA Tournament — this is stuff that we’ve got to do. And even the coaches, they held us accountable after the game like, ‘Yeah, man. Great win, great team win, but we’ve got to make free throws.’ Coach Cal said he’s going to play the guys that he knows he can trust to make free throws at the end of the game, and if we want to be in at the end of the game, we know we’ve got to prove to ourselves and to the coaches and everyone else that we can make those free throws.”
Wheeler, Wallace and free throws
A couple of issues with Calipari only playing guys at the end that he can trust at the line:
1.) Either Wheeler or Wallace — preferably both — need to be on the court in those (and, really, all) situations.
“You gotta get it across halfcourt, so you can’t say, ‘Well, these guys aren’t making free throws. Take them out.’ You still gotta play the game and figure out what you’re trying to do,” Calipari said on his weekly radio show Wednesday.
2.) He should be able to trust Wheeler and Wallace at the line. And he does.
In Wheeler’s case, he told the veteran guard — after missing the first one-and-one in the final minute against Michigan — to go back at it and get fouled again.
“We need Sahvir in the game,” Calipari said. “I have more comfort in him shooting free throws than he has in himself. I’m like, ‘I want you at the line.’ … He missed it again. And Cason did the same thing against Michigan State. We make those, we win that game.”
UK associate coach Orlando Antigua told the Herald-Leader in the preseason that the Cats typically don’t spend much dedicated practice time on free throws. There are too many other team things to go over that can’t be replicated elsewhere. Free throws can be worked on before or after practice and in other free time. Antigua said coaches do like to have players shoot right after practice, when they’re tired, to better simulate late-game experiences.
“You want to be able to have them concentrate when they’re fatigued,” he said.
Calipari apparently bumped up that timeline Wednesday.
Toward the end of that day’s practice, he set up a drill where players had to make three consecutive series of one-and-ones. Make one free throw, make the second, walk away from the line, and then do it again. Who was the first Wildcat to complete it? Wheeler. Who was the second? Wallace.
Calipari explained his reaction on his radio show later that night.
“What do you think I said? ‘Do that crap in the game! Do what you just did in the game.’”
The UK coach said his team completed about 15 of those triple one-and-ones in eight minutes, a result that seemed to please him.
“We have a good free-throw shooting team,” Calipari concluded.
Perhaps the numbers will reflect that as the season goes on. They don’t at the moment.
“Just play” has become a motto of sorts for Calipari and this team, like some of his previous squads. Forget the stuff that doesn’t matter, fall back on your talent and training and go compete. He’s been especially pleased with the way the freshman Wallace has handled himself in that regard to this point. But it’s clear that he feels some of his guys, Wallace included, are playing with a different mentality in crunch time against good teams.
“They’re good free-throw shooters,” he said of the two point guards. “But you can’t be playing the game not to lose. You can’t play that way. You play to bury somebody. You play not to lose, you know what you normally do? Ya lose. … Just play. Play to win. …
“It’s mental. That mental toughness. That grittiness. That will to win. That, ‘I’m playing to win.’”
Don’t overthink it
So, how does Kentucky turn things around at the line?
Calipari implied that he’s heard from different people talking up different drills he could try. Someone, he said, told him that Joe B. Hall used to make his players shoot 100 free throws. If they didn’t make 90, they had to do it again.
You can be mean, Calipari said on his radio show, taking on a grizzled, gruff voice: “If you miss, you’re gonna run.”
You can be positive, he continued, sounding like Willy Wonka passing out golden tickets: “We’re gonna give you rewards for makin’ ’em!”
Or you could “recruit better free-throw shooters,” he (seemingly) joked.
He agreed with one caller that it was becoming a problem. “But here’s what I know over all my years of coaching: if you make it too big of an issue, it’s worse.”
He told a story about his 2007-08 Memphis team. That squad ended the season shooting 61.4 percent from the line, 329th in the nation. Those Tigers went to the national title game, and free throws ultimately led to their undoing.
At one point, he called the team into his room. He told them to close their eyes and think about being at the foul line. Bounce the ball. Eye the shot. Hold the follow through, and watch it go through the rim, nothing but net. He made them do that 10 times.
They opened their eyes at the end. Calipari looked at one player.
“How’d you do?” the coach asked him.
“I made six of 10,” the player replied (according to Calipari’s retelling of events).
A funny anecdote. Even if it’s not true — Cal’s been known to embellish — it underlines his point that free-throw shooting is just as much a mental exercise as it is a physical one. He thinks he has guys who should be good at the line. The past numbers bear that out, even if the present ones call it into question. It’s only December, and most of the Cats’ shots are still ahead of them.
“The whole year is about getting better,” Calipari said. “Unless someone’s trying to make it about every game, every quarter, every five minutes. Every shot, every play, every timeout. You can’t get into that. We’re in a process about getting better. … I’ve gotta get these guys to have the same mental picture I have of how you finish a game. And when they get that, when we’re on the same page, it’s easy.”