It’s almost coincidental that the Cincinnati Bearcats’ most recent game was against the Memphis Tigers. They are the same program that was once consistently made runs to regional finals in the NCAA Tournament in the mid-2000s. The high point of that stretch, which came under the tutelage of John Calipari, came during the 2007-08 season. In that campaign, the Tigers made it all the way to the national championship game.
But they didn’t win.
Why not? While a loss can not be nailed down to just one play most of the time, there was one 20-second stretch which really defined the Tigers’ 75-68 overtime loss to Kansas in that title contest. Leading 62-60 with 16 seconds to play, the Tigers forced a turnover from the Jayhawks and it looked like they would seal the win. Then Chris Douglas-Roberts missed two free throws. An offensive rebound from Memphis followed and Derrick Rose went to the line. His first shot bounced on the rim and then off the backboard. Although he made his next shot, it didn’t stop Mario Chalmer’s clutch three-pointer from forcing overtime.
Memphis was an incredible team that year, but free-throw shooting was a major weakness. Despite leading the country in foul shots (991), the Tigers ranked 329th in free throw percentage (.614).
Now what does that have to do with the Bearcats? Well, UC may not be on pace to go 38-2, but as the No. 8 team in the country according to KenPom, it will be playing in some critical games in the next few months. Those types of contests often come down to the foul line, at least for the team with the lead. If the Bearcats hope to be in such tilts and to win them, they need to improve where the 2008 Tigers failed.
As a whole, the Bearcats are shooting just 68.1 percent from the line. Even in an easy win over Memphis on Sunday, they only made 9-of-17 attempts (52.9 percent). Obviously that didn’t endanger the outcome, but the Wichita States and SMUs of the world aren’t going to be run over by 34 points.
In both of their losses this season, the Bearcats made 10-of-16 (62.5 percent) free throws. Against Xavier, a more efficient rate wouldn’t have solved the problem, but in a a six-point loss to Florida, leaving exactly six points at the line hurt. That’s not to say UC should be shooting 100 percent from the floor. That would be a ridiculous demand. But hovering in the low 60s, especially in the biggest games of the season, is dangerous.
Luckily there are some reasons to be hopeful improvement is on the way. Jarron Cumberland has been one of the more disappointing free throw shooters this season considering how many times he gets to the line (2.9 per game). He has made only 57.5 percent of his attempts. It’s unlikely he will jump by 20 percent since he’s never been an elite foul shooter, but he made 64.4 percent a year ago. Getting back to that success rate should be doable. In addition, both Kyle Washington and Cane Broome, who are playing plenty of minutes, are both shooting below their usual pace, especially Washington, who made 71.1 percent last year and is currently at 66.7 percent.
Interestingly enough, this free throw shooting problem has occurred while Gary Clark has done nothing but improve. Prior to this season, he had always shot below 70 percent, but he is sitting at 83.3 percent right now, all while leading the team in attempts (3.9 per game). That may not be sustainable, but if he really has gotten better, which is likely, then just minor improvements throughout the rest of the roster will make a big difference, especially if the Bearcats hope to play in the same types of games as the 2008 Memphis Tigers.