A few weeks ago, while on Pardon the Interruption, Coach John Calipari was asked the importance of free throws to him. His reply was that when he recruits a player he has 25 things he looks for in that player. Free Throw shooting is 26th on that list. Basically, he couldn't be less concerned about the Free Throw shooting skills in the players he recruits. He said his teams never have high FT%, but do hit them when it counts.
Before I break this down and show why Coach Cal is wrong and needs to re think ranking of what he looks for in a player, allow me to say that I agree that FT% would be low on my list as well. I would want players on my team that are like the guys that he finds: Athletic, fast, play hard, long arms etc.. However, I would not play down the importance of free throw shooting the way he does.
The first thing Memphis defenders will say is that they shot around 70% in the tournament which is more then 8% better then their season average of 61.4%. Its easy to say that, "oh yea, they increase their percentage in the more important games."
Lets take a closer look. In the 5 games in the NCAA tournament that Memphis won,they won by an average of 15.6 points. Their best free throw shooting games came against Michigan State in the sweet 16, and Texas in the elite 8, where they shot 83% and 87% respectively. However, they also won these games by 18 and 15 points respectively.
In round 2 against Mississippi State when Memphis squeaked by a 3 point victory, they shot a dismal 46.9% from the line. This is a game where the free throws obviously mattered and they did not hit them. Its fair to say they won this game on sheer talent against a much lesser Mississippi State opponent. Had this been a more quality opponent like say, Tennessee on February 23 when Memphis shot 47% from the charity stripe, and suffered their one defeat of the regular season, Memphis may have suffered an early exit from the Tournament.
Coach Cal may deny this and say other mental errors cost them the Tennessee game, and the Championship game. To that I say mental errors happen and are hard to erase. You can prepare all you want, but at game speed things happen and players make mistakes. You cannot predict what the other team will do to force you into these mental errors.
However free throws are sole on the player. There is no opposing force, and is something that can be improved.
Before I say this next part, I know that Coach Cal is an all time coach and I am some guy writing an article about his team losing. You may say How can I be giving him advice? Well this just seems to be a lay up (or a free throw) and is just way to obvious so here I go:
When your team shoots under 50% in a game and you lose, as a coach you should not allow your players to leave practice until some kind of free throw quota is met. As a coach you can apply this quota to every practice. Just like practicing plays and various defenses, players should be forced to shoot free throws.
Now I know this topic will get toss around a lot in the coming days and will get tired. Coach Cal, who I think is a great coach and obviously a great recruiter, will get second guessed a ton.
However, I feel it is important to point these facts out because of Coach Cal's view of the matter. He seems to have complete disregard for free throw shooting and believes that his team can win on talent alone. This works in Conference USA where Coach Cal recruits players who are head and shoulders above the competition and ends up 4 games ahead of the second place team in the conference. This obviously works in the tournament as well, even against some of the best teams in the country, IE: Michigan State and Texas.
However when his team met a Kansas team that is almost on par as far as talent, (I say almost because you can argue that Memphis has better players) a few extra points from the free throw line would have made all the difference.
With that being said, I don't think Coach Cal's goal was to get to the final four or even the championship game. His goal was to win the championship game.
Maybe now Coach Cal will move free throw shooting into his top 25 of things to look for in his recruits.