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Free throw shooting becoming a strength for Wildcats

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The Wildcats are shooting 71.8 percent at the foul line as a team, best of any John Calipari-led team at UK or Memphis. (Britney McIntosh) The Wildcats are shooting 71.8 percent at the foul line as a team, best of any John Calipari-led team at UK or Memphis. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Through 10 games of the 2011-12 season, Kentucky was shooting just 154-for-228 (67.5 percent) from the free throw line. It appeared John Calipari's reputation as a coach with supremely talented teams who can't consistently convert at the foul line would be reinforced, right or wrong.

Then, over the holiday break, Calipari instituted stiff penalties for missed free throws. For every attempt at the line that the Wildcats miss in a game, a 33-second sprint would await them in practice the following day.

Convinced his team was fully capable of being a very good free throw shooting team, Calipari thought the deterrent would bring an additional level of focus to his Kentucky team both in games and in practice.

Safe to say, the strategy is working.

Beginning with a win against Samford on Dec. 20, the Wildcats have shown tremendous improvement. Over than nine-game span, UK is 180-for-237 (75.9 percent) at the line, raising its season average to 71.8 percent, best in the Southeastern Conference and 84th nationally.

Primarily driving UK's improvement have been point guard Marquis Teague and forward Anthony Davis.

To begin the season, fans and pundits alike wondered whether Teague's poor foul shooting would keep him off the floor in clutch situations, but Calipari expressed confidence in the freshman even as he hit just 15-for-27 over his first 11 games.

Since then, Teague has morphed into one UK's most reliable shooters at the stripe. He has hit 25 of his last 30 free throws (83.3 percent), bumping his season average to 70.2 percent.

Similarly, Davis' improvement at the line has paralleled his team's. Nine games into his college career, UK's new shot blocking king was just 20-for-38 (52.6 percent) at the charity stripe, but his stroke looked reliable nonetheless. With work in the practice gym and Calipari's prodding, Davis has hit 38-of-45 (84.4 percent) free throws since in increasing his percentage on the season to 69.9.

Teague's and Davis' growth at the line is particularly positive, as Teague will likely step to the line in crucial situations as UK's point guard and Davis will shoot more and more free throws as he's asked to do more offensively (he's already second on the team with 83 attempts at the line).

If the two freshmen and their UK teammates can keep it up, this team could be Calipari's best free throw shooting team in recent memory. A season ago, the Wildcats shot 71.0 percent at the line, a full 2.0 percent better than any Calipari-coached team at Kentucky or Memphis. This year's team is ahead of that pace and steadily improving.

Clearly, the Wildcats don't enjoy running.

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