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Cory Jennerjohn It's simple for the Badgers…continue to make free throws

Ben Brust leads the Badgers by making 89 percent of his free throws this season.
Photo by Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

I imagine you’ve heard this a million times: Free throws are called free for a reason.

So have I. However, I don’t think Kentucky has. There’s no doubt that Kentucky mines some of the best basketball talent on the planet but when it comes to making an unguarded 15-footer, forget it.

In the five years that John Calipari has paced the sidelines in Lexington, the one thing that has been forgotten has been free throw shooting. Blame it on the one-and-done athlete that Coach Cal recruits or blame it on the fact that young players just don’t want to practice one of the easiest shots in the game like they used to.

But regardless, the Wildcats cannot make free throws. They have finished in the bottom half in the nation three times in the last five years, including an abysmal 313th of 345 teams after shooting 64 percent for the 2012-2013 season. Kentucky is shooting 68 percent this season, good for 220th.

Last year wasn’t any better for the Badgers as they shot 63 percent. It was arguably one of the worst free throw shooting teams at the University of Wisconsin and it ranked eight spots lower than Kentucky. But that number mainly got an assist from Ryan Evans’ meager 43 percent clip. Saying that he struggled from the charity stripe that season just isn’t doing adjectives justice.

However, in the same five-year span, the Badgers finished the season ranked 37th twice in 2009-2010 (73 percent) and 2011-2012 (74) and are currently 36th this year (74). But they also finished No. 1 in 2010-2011 by making a remarkable 82 percent.

There are a ton of factors that go into free throws. Many players cannot deal with pressure-packed situations that wreak havoc on the nerves. And there a litany of missed free throws on purpose by teams that need a quick rebound and a layup in order to cut into a deficit.

Obviously, Calipari hasn’t really needed to worry about free throw shooting much. This is his third Final Four at Kentucky. But the Wildcats’ eighth national championship led by Calipari in 2011-2012 — with four guys that would be taken in the first round of the NBA Draft — was the same team that shot 72 percent from the line. That’s the best free shooting team of Calipari’s Kentucky tenure by finishing 65th of 338 teams. I don’t think that’s merely a coincidence. That team won because they found a way to close out games at the line.

That may not sound overwhelming, but it’s pretty impressive for a core that was made up of freshmen. It’s no accident that Bo Ryan would love to have Ben Brust at the line in late-game situations. Obviously it helps that he’s shooting 89 percent from there this season but it doesn’t hurt that he’s a senior. Aaron Harrison leads Kentucky this season by making 80 percent of his foul shots. Conversely, the Wildcats have five players that are shooting under 50 percent this year, with four of them being freshmen.

The Wildcats have seven McDonald’s All-Americans on their roster while the Badgers have none. Heck, the Badgers only have three McDonald’s All-Americans in their entire history.

But future NBA ping-pong balls aren’t going to win this game. Free throws will. And judging from the lack of respect the Wildcats give to the free throw line, this is an area that the Badgers can not only thrive, but also maintain a sizable advantage.

And when you get to a stage like the Final Four, making a handful of free throws over your opponent may not seem like much but it is monumental considering that most pundits aren’t giving the Badgers a chance — again.

Kentucky Wildcats Free Throws

(year, team free throw percentage, NCAA rank)

2009-2010: 66.8, 237 of 334
2010-2011: 71.0, 110 of 335
2011-2012: 72.3, 65 of 338
2012-2013: 64.2, 313 of 345
2013-2014: 68.5, 220 of 345

Wisconsin Badgers Free Throws

(year, team free throw percentage, NCAA rank)

2009-2010: 73.2, 37 of 334
2010-2011: 81.8, 1 of 335
2011-2012: 73.9, 37 of 338
2012-2013: 63.4, 321 of 345
2013-2014: 74.1, 36 of 345

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