Nov 12, 2013; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Bearcats guard Sean Kilpatrick (23) shoots free throws after a technical foul was called against the North Carolina State Wolfpack during the second half of the Bearcats 68-57 win over the Wolfpack at Fifth Third Arena. Mandatory Credit: Rob Leifheit-USA TODAY Sports

Statestify! The Sources Of Cincinnati's Improved Free Throw Shooting This Season

statestify1

The laundry list of positive things Mick Cronin has brought to the Cincinnati Bearcats is endless. You could mention the stifling defense, the never-say-die attitude from this team, or the fact that the players stay out of trouble and are outstanding representatives of this university. All of which would be correct and why I hope Mick retires at UC sometime in the very distant future.

But one aspect of his teams that has actually been detrimental to the program is his players’ free throw shooting. To be blunt, it’s been downright terrible since Mick took over the head coaching duties all those years ago and has cost the Bearcats more than a few games during his tenure. But this season, it’s actually been quite good. Just take a look at these numbers.

 
Free Throw %
National Rank
2013-1470.7%126th
2012-1364.7%303rd
2011-1264.4%302nd
2010-1166.8%245th
2009-1063.8%318th
2008-0965.7%269th
2007-0866.5%255th
2006-0766.1%260th
The next major question is, why?

Obviously when it comes to data the numbers only tell us part of  story. Maybe the coaches are making more of a concerted effort in practice. Maybe Mick Cronin forced his more sight-impaired players to wear contacts for the first time in eight years. I’m not sure. But to help us answer that question we can begin by evaluate the players’ shooting between last season and this season. Additionally, we’ll look at the players who graduated last year and the major new contributors at the free throw line this year.

 
2013-14
2012-13
YOY Change
Sean Kilpatrick85.6%73.8%+11.8%
Justin Jackson47.9%51.2%-3.3%
Titus Rubles73.8%66.0%+7.8%
David Nyarsuk85.7%53.3%+32.4%
Shaq Thomas73.3%48.1%+25.2%
Jermaine Sanders66.7%53.1%+13.6%
Ge'Lawn Guyn57.9%83.3%-25.4%
Cashmere Wright-80.2%-
JaQuon Parker-54.2%-
Cheikh Mbodj-68.4%-
Troy Caupain73.5%--
Kevin Johnson82.6%--
As I peruse that data, three key findings pop out at me that all contribute to Cincinnati’s improved free throw percentage this season.

1) JaQuon Parker is no longer in the lineup

Parker did a lot for this team. He was the quintessential “glue guy” his junior year and an excellent all around guard as a senior. I can’t count how many times Parker would snag an errant shot off the rim with several 6’8″ and 6’9″ forwards crowding around him. But it really was addition by subtraction at the free throw line when he graduated. Parker shot just 54.2% from there in 2012-13 and considering he went to stripe 144 times that season (2nd to only Sean Kilpatrick), you can see why it would really pull down the team’s average.

Essentially when Mick Cronin replaced his spot in the lineup with Troy Caupain (73.5% FT shooter) and Kevin Johnson (82.6% FT shooter), it created more efficiency out of the guard position from the stripe. That has really bolstered Cincinnati’s free throw numbers this season.

2) Sean Kilpatrick has become even more deadly from the stripe

Cincinnati’s senior guard has always been one of the team’s best free throw shooters and that’s been especially critical for the Bearcats considering how much he gets to the stripe. Kilpatrick puts on a clinic on how to be aggressive with the basketball and drive to the hoop. In doing so he draws a lot of fouls and makes it to the free throw line more than any other Bearcat (104 times this year, 145 in 2012-13).

The difference this season is that he’s become even better at making those shots. A 73.8% make rate was pretty good for last year’s squad but ballooning that to 85.6% is huge for Cincinnati in 2013-14.

3) Big Dave can drain free throws! Same with Shaq Thomas!

Nyarsuk is the poster child for making the most of his court time, whether it be grabbing rebounds, getting quick points around the basket, or just taking up space in the paint. The same came be said for his free throw shooting. He only garners a few minutes per game but Big Dave has really made them count this season. Now, Nyarsuk’s only attempted just 7 free throws this year but his 85.7% make rate (up 32% from last year) does pull up the average just a bit.

Even more so does Shaq Thomas because he’s not only shooting about 25% better from the free throw line this season, he also gets there the 5th most of any Bearcat. Out of 45 attempts, Thomas is draining an impressive 73.3% of them. Considering how much he emulates Kilpatrick’s slashing abilities, the fact that Shaq can hit almost three-quarters of his free throws is critical for the Bearcats down the stretch.

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So are these three factors the only reasons why UC’s overall free throw percentage is better in 2013-14? Probably not and the actual sources likely reside somewhere on UC’s practice court. Whatever Mick Cronin and his players are doing in their game prep has certainly helped this season, in addition to a little turnover in Cincinnati’s lineup. Regardless of the reason, the fact that we’ve witnessed a stark improvement in the Bearcats’ free throw shooting is encouraging for a team that quite frankly doesn’t have the offensive firepower to put away opponents this year. But a stout defense combined with the ability to finish teams off at the stripe is deadly for Cincinnati this season.

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