Heading into the annual Kentucky-Louisville game, Rick Pitino thought his team could afford to foul Anthony Davis and put him at the line. The freshman forward burned the Cardinals by hitting 12-of-13 free throws in Kentucky’s 69-62 victory over the Cardinals on Saturday.
“It looked like he was a shaky free-throw shooter and suddenly looked like Jerry West out there,” Pitino said. “I don’t know what happened there.”
Sprints, that’s what happened.
To shed some early season free-throw woes and emphasize the importance of making shots at the charity stripe, John Calipari has been making his team run sprints in practice for every free throw the Wildcats miss in a game.
Miss 10 free throws, that’s 10 sprints the next day at practice. And these just aren’t any easy sprints across the gym floor; these are 33-second suicides. Even for well-conditioned college basketball players, a couple of those will have the lungs burning.
What: No. 2/2 UK (13-1) vs. Arkansas-Little Rock (5-10)
When: Tuesday, 7 p.m.
Where: Louisville, Ky., Freedom Hall (18,865)
Game notes: UK
Video interviews: Calipari and Beckham
News: UK sweeps weekly SEC awards
News: Kentucky back at No. 2
News: UK Alumni Club to host pep rally
Head coach: Steve Shields (24-27 at UALR)
Conference: Sun Belt
Player to watch: Will Neighbour (12.0 points, 6.1 rebounds)
Series history: First meeting
“I’m just challenging them that way,” Calipari said after the Louisville game. “So they’ll come in and practice because they don’t want to run.”
The dread of the sprints is indeed paying off. Over the last four games, the Wildcats have hit 98-of-127 free throws, a 77.2 percent mark. Against Louisville, UK sunk 32-of-42 freebies, essentially icing the game at the charity stripe.
After the Indiana game, Kentucky ranked in the bottom half of the country with a 67.8 percent mark from the foul line. Since then, UK has steadily climbed the national ladder and ranks 92nd in the country at 71.0 percent.
Davis is behind the team-wide improvement. He’s hit 19 of his last 21 free throws, upping his season average to 63.1 percent.
“I’ve just been practicing,” Davis said. “I’m a way better free-throw shooter than what I’ve been shooting, so (I need to) go up there and concentrate and knock down the free throws.”
Calipari has said that Davis is a much better free-throw shooter than what he’s showed. As a former 6-foot-3 guard, Davis has a smooth shooting stroke. He admitted after the Louisville game that he was letting one miss get to him and carry over to the next shot.
“If you were him, wouldn’t you ball fake, step through, ball fake, just get fouled,” Calipari said. “Why even shoot the ball? Get fouled. It was good to see him make his.”
Sinking free throws will carry significant importance as the season wears on. Opposing teams have tried to employ a much more physical style of defense as the Cats have shot an average of 37.7 free throws over the last three games.
Cal encourages fans to fill Freedom Hall
Kentucky will leave Lexington on Monday and head to Louisville for its annual game in Freedom Hall on Tuesday. UK will play Arkansas-Little Rock at 7 p.m. on Fox Sports South.
UK sacrifices a home game every year to play in Louisville. The game isn’t a part of Kentucky’s season ticket package, meaning more people from different parts of the state have a better opportunity to see the Wildcats in action.
“We’re excited about going in to Louisville and having our fans there,” Calipari said. “I’m hearing there are tickets left but they are up top so I would just tell our fans it is your chance to see us in person. Get out there and get to the game.”
Calipari and Kentucky haven’t committed to the long-term future of the game, but Coach Cal seemed to suggest the fans can influence the decision.
“People have to come to it and make it something they want us to do,” Calipari said. “It’s hard to say, ‘get us UCLA in there.’ You just can’t. I know this, Little Rock at home there would 24,000 people there if it’s here in Lexington. We want to continue to do it. We want to reach out to our fans and give everybody an opportunity. This is an opportunity for people who aren’t season ticket holders. Here’s a game, let’s go.”
UK has drawn 13,765 fans over its last five games at Freedom Hall against opponents other than Indiana or Louisville. That number includes the 17,404 fans that showed up last season to watch the Wildcats play Notre Dame in the SEC/Big East Invitational. Freedom Hall currently seats 18,865 fans.
“I think the great thing about our fans is that they come to see us play,” Calipari said. “They’re not just here to see the other team. They’re here to see us play.”
Kentucky has a 59-18 all-time record in Freedom Hall. Fans can purchase tickets at Ticketmaster.com.
Jones ‘getting there’
Terrence Jones has only scored 11 points in two games back from his left pinky injury, but Calipari said he’s “getting there.”
“He’s still a little tentative but we’ll be fine,” Calipari said. “I’ve had many guys go into a slumber and then have to break out of it and it’s not easy.”
Jones, a preseason All-American, only made one of his nine shots against Louisville, but he pulled down 11 rebounds. Calipari said that’s a start for the preseason All-American.
“You do it with defense, tough rebounding and physical play,” Caliapri said. “It’s kind of like a football player. You have the butterflies and then all of a sudden you go whack the first guy and they are gone now and you go play. It’s no different in basketball. He tried defensively. Wasn’t bad, wasn’t great (but) still not what he’s supposed to be.”
Calipari said Jones’ finger is no longer the issue.
“We still have to get him flying up and down that court,” Calipari said. “Part of it is, you have to have fun but you can only have fun if you are the aggressor. If you are getting knocked in the head you aren’t going to think it’s fun. If you knock them you are having fun. He’s not as aggressive as he was at the beginning of the year so he just has to get back to that. Being aggressive means you are playing harder and play at a difference pace and play harder than the other guy and that’s hard. He’s a terrific player, he’ll be fine.”
Beckham returns home
The trip to Louisville means sophomore guard Twany Beckham gets to return home and play in front of his family and friends for the first time since leaving high school many years ago.
It’s been a long journey for Beckham, who played a year of prep ball at New Hampton School after high school and spent two-plus seasons at Mississippi State before transferring to Kentucky. Beckham said he’s been overwhelmed with ticket requests from friends and family members.
“It means a lot to get to play in front of a lot of my family and friends,” Beckham said. “I can’t wait for that to happen. My mom is happy to see me come back home.”
Beckham has played 20 minutes in five appearances this season since becoming eligible for the Chattanooga game. He’s seen most of his time at the wing position while he tries to learn the point guard position in practice.
“I’ve been watching Marquis (Teague) a lot in practice,” Beckham said. “Point guard, hopefully I can come into the role down the road, but right now I’ve been playing a lot of the wing. Right now I’m focusing on trying to get better at the wing spots and if point guard is where I’m needed at down the road, hopefully I’ll be ready for that.”
Calipari happy for Harrellson
Coach Cal didn’t watch the entire game New Year’s Eve, but he was happy for Josh Harrellson after the former UK forward scored 14 points and grabbed 12 rebounds in a start for the New York Knicks on Saturday.
“I’m happy for him,” Calipari said. “I texted him and said, ‘Looks like I held you back,’ but he came back with a great one, and I told the team this, ‘Coach, you did fine, we had a terrific shooting team. I didn’t need to shoot jumpers.’ And he’s right. We had Doron (Lamb), Darius (Miller) and Brandon Knight. He was concerned with the team and it worked out for him. You don’t have to worry about yourself. Just do what you are supposed to do and you’ll be presented in the right way.”
Davis denies upset bid with monster second half