NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Ever since Memphis missed critical free throws in the 2008 national championship game against Kansas to send the game to overtime — a game and title the Jayhawks eventually won — free throw shooting has been under the microscope for every John Calipari team.
All that talent and the great equalizer often has been the free throw line.
On this year’s team, the line may be Kentucky’s secret weapon.
Kentucky is 49-of-58 from the free throw line in two SEC tournament games, boosting an already respectable rate of 72 percent from the line.
It’s no coincidence that Calipari’s national championship team of 2012 is also his best free throw shooting team of his time at Memphis and Kentucky. That team shot 72.3 percent from the line. This year’s team is two-tenths of a percent behind.
If free throw shooting at some point becomes the determining factor in Kentucky’s bid for a 40-season, Calipari can thank peer pressure and family pressure around his top two big men.
Kentucky isn’t a top-100 free throw shooting team just because its guards are shooting around an 80 percent clip — that’s where Aaron and Andrew Harrison are — it’s because Karl-Anthony Towns and Willie Cauley-Stein are factors at the line.
Towns doesn’t just shoot well for a big man. He shoots free throws well for anyone. The 6-11 freshman shoots 81.1 percent from the line, better than either of the Harrisons and second only to prodigious jump shooter Devin Booker (82.8 percent).
For Towns, this was ingrained since the third grade. Towns was always tall for his age, and his father wanted to make sure the free throw shooting wouldn’t be the liability it is for so many other big men.
“My dad seeing how tall I was always wanted to make sure I was good at shooting free throws,” said Towns, who is 11-of-11 from the line in the SEC tournament. “I just constantly practiced shooting free throws. I always knew at my height I would be fouled. Every day I work on my free throws.”
Cauley-Stein maybe needed some extra prodding.
He was a 37 percent free throw shooter as a freshman, then improved to 48.2 percent as a sophomore. He’s now shooting nearly 60 percent as a junior.
“We work on it. And we talk a lot of trash,” Aaron Harrison said. “He took it to heart. Willie’s improved a lot and for Karl, it’s just easier.”
Kentucky’s four big men, Towns, Cauley-Stein, Trey Lyles and Dakari Johnson, are shooting a combined 68.6 percent from the line. That’s not great, but it’s better than at least a dozen NCAA Tournament at-large teams shoot as a team.
If Kentucky’s size wasn’t imposing enough, now not even the free throw line can put a dent in the Wildcats’ armor.