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Kentucky Basketball

UK Basketball: Are the Threes or 'Frees' More Important

January 28, 2020

The way the game of basketball is being played on the offensive end has changed significantly in the past 20 years. The game has evolved/is evolving into what you could consider ‘if you can’t dunk it or lay it up, shoot the three’.

This can be seen at the NBA level in a very real and tangible way:

Not only is there not a single place outside the paint in the top 200 shot locations, but there are also few that are beyond 8-10 feet from the rim. The philosophy and analytics behind this new approach are mathematically sound.

For example, Dayton is the #1 team in America in field goal percentage inside the arc at 62% (as of this writing). St. Mary’s is the #1 team in America from behind the arc at 42%. If Dayton takes 50 shots from two-point land on 50 possessions, they score 62 points at their current shooting percentage. It would only take St. Mary’s 21 made three-pointers to outscore Dayton in those same 50 shots/possessions vs. Dayton’s 31.

While this type of NBA ‘dunk or three’ offense has not fully integrated into the NCAA game, there seem to be many more teams that are following suit.

The reason this is an issue for Big Blue Nation is because this year’s team came out of the gates shooting horrendously from behind the arc and were being outscored by some significant amounts from behind the arc. 

The point differential from three was also the strongest driver behind the losses to Evansville and Utah, while also being the reason the Utah Valley and UAB games were much more in contention than expected. In fact, UAB only scored 2 points from the free-throw line, keeping UAB off the line is the reason this team does not have an extra ‘ugly’ loss.

Point Differential from Three:

  • Evansville  -15
  • Utah Valley  -30
  • UAB  -9
  • UTAH  -18

Since the Utah loss, Kentucky has shown life from three and has actually become a threat outside the arc. In the 9 games since the Utah loss, Kentucky is averaging around 6 made threes per game. In the 10 games prior to that, Kentucky only averaged around 4 made threes per game. To make it even worse, Kentucky made 10 three-pointers against Lamar, an aberration for this team. Without that performance, the 4 per game drops to 3 per game in the 9 other matchups. 

It was during these early games I started to wonder just how much is the ‘3-point’ point differential hurting UK. While UK starting to knock down threes at a respectable rate, all of a sudden they started missing free throws like they hadn’t all year. The Cats went 62%, 50%, 65%, and 69% in 4 of their next 6 games before getting back to normal with upper 70s% the last three games.

The truth of the matter is that they were just ‘regressing to the mean’ in both facets... it just happened to be at the exact same time and very visible. Still, this only further drove a question to me; which is more important for this team... making threes or free throws. I even ran a twitter poll to which 57% of respondents said they would rather see Kentucky shoot better from three and worse from the free-throw line given the choice.

I decided to look at each game this season and see how many points UK/Opponents scored from the three-point line and the free-throw line as well as what percentage UK shot from each. The idea I went into this analysis was to essentially determine how many threes and at what percentage UK needs to shoot in order to have their best chance to win. Now, it’s easy to say they need to hit 10 threes a game and shoot 40%, but that is just not realistic so I wanted to see what this particular team needed.

Turns out... I was looking for the wrong answer and justifies why us couch coaches do not make millions upon millions of dollars per year to be the coach. In short, Cal is right in his philosophy... at least for this team and the way he coaches anyway. You can argue the point that he should adjust to a ‘dunk or three’ coaching method in another conversation.


You can see that from a combined standpoint, UK is scoring an average of 33.2 points per game from the respective lines, outscoring opponents by 2 points per game. While they are being outscored by nearly 5 points a game from three, they are outscoring opponents by nearly 7 points a game at the free-throw stripe.

So, what about in losses? or in Wins? or in games that were not blowouts?


In Kentucky’s losses, it would be easy to point to the point differential from behind the arc (UK was -9 on average in those losses). I think it should be viewed differently, however. There are two things that are much more in Kentucky’s control from the above statistics and they both revolve around the free-throw line. You can also look at one particular loss, Ohio State, and see this. Kentucky actually outscored the Buckeyes from three, but only made 8 free throws (a season-low and only output of less than 10 makes) to OSU’s 21 made free throws. UK lost by 6 to a team that outscored them by 13 points at the free-throw line.

In Kentucky’s wins (and wins where the game was within 15 points) they only gave up an average of 11 points at the charity stripe while scoring 20 points themselves. That +9 point differential allows for a margin of teams to make up to 3 more threes than UK does and it would not put them ‘in the red’ so to speak.

The real ‘magic number’ for UK is 30... with 30 being the number of points they give up to the opponent from the three-point line and free-throw line combined. Even in their losses, the Cats are scoring at least 30 points from the respective lines.

If you look at Kentucky’s biggest wins of the season you will see this trend play out:

  • Michigan State - 28 combined points given up
  • Louisville - 30 combined points given up
  • Texas Tech - 26 combined points given up

Arkansas is the outlier on the list, as they scored 44 combined, outscoring UK by 9 points. The Cats made that differential up by stifling 2-point defense, only allowing Arkansas to shoot 35% inside the arc (Arkansas made 11 two-pointers to UK’s 19) and dominating the boards.

Knowing that the Cats need to hold opponents to 30 points combined we can then layout the ‘perfect’, yet realistic mixture of how UK needs to perform behind each line.

Kentucky is shooting 32% from three and 77% from the free-throw line. They have taken a total of 287 three-pointers (15 per game) and 455 free-throws (24 per game). Shooting at a clip f 32% and 77% means that UK, on average, will make 4.8 three-pointers per game and 18.5 free throws per game. That is a total of 34 points combined per game from the line(s).

The truth is Kentucky does not *need* to improve from either area, they are already doing more than enough to win every game they play. So, guess what it all comes down to... defense. Just like Coach Cal preaches, it is defense that is going to make or break this team’s chances at a final four. The difference being it might be the kind of defense that is not predicated on shutting down a possession, but where you simply do not foul a shooter or allow an and-1 if you do foul.

Cal does a great job against teams that really emphasize the three-point shot. When he prepares his team for a great shooting team, generally they defend well. However, sometimes the defense does not matter. That team is on a heater and all you can do is take it and hope they cool down enough for you to overcome it. 

There is one area where Kentucky’s defense has the most control in their ‘perfect equation’ to winning the game, and that is keeping the other team off the line. You cannot keep a team from shooting 30 threes... but you certainly can keep them from shooting 30 free throws.

This team more than any other under Cal seems to commit WAY too many fouls that I call damaging fouls. Those are fouls where the team is able to ‘and-1’ on the foul or they are fouled while shooting prior to the bonus being in effect. Those are free points that the opponent should not be entitled to, yet this team seems to commit those types of fouls A LOT.

Kentucky opponents are averaging 17.8 free throws per game, which is very much the average (UK is ranked 153rd in America in terms of least free throws attempted per game, Virginia is #1 at 11.8).  

The national average for free throw percentage is between 70-71%. This means on average Kentucky should give up around 12-13 points per game from the line, this is right along with their current average of 11.8 points from the line given up. To keep teams from getting above the magic number of 30 combined points from the line this means UK can give up 6 three-pointers and be relatively safe from loss.

If you really want to dissect how the game is going for Kentucky, see if the opponent is pacing more than 12 made free throws and more than 6 made threes... that would be when it is time to worry most.


I do not know who truly said it first, but the phrase ‘Control the controllables’ is this year’s Cats mantra to victory. All they have to do is A) continue what they are doing on offense, B) play tough three-point defense and hope it is not a 10+ three-point night, but mainly C) where Kentucky can determine the outcome is to control their fouling and keeping the other team off the line. Do not foul shooters, but more importantly, make it count if you do an avoid an and-1.

So, as you are watching this team, don’t fret if they only hit 4-5 threes. The time to worry is if they are not pacing their usual 18ish makes from the free-throw line. Don’t fret if the other team drops 4-5 bombs in the first half either. The time to worry is if you constantly see the opposing team headed to the line (prior to the bonus) or getting and-1s.

As I mentioned prior, I went into this thinking I was going to prove that UK needs to improve their three-point shooting by ______ (percentage or attempts) as a key to them being a final four team.

However, it turns out that Coach Cal is correct, even in an environment where the game is changing to an offensive ideology of ‘dunk or three’... defense and free throws still wins championships.

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UK Basketball: Are the Threes or 'Frees' More Important

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