UNC’s free-throw woes bring plenty of advice, but Tar Heels have yet to find solution

acarter@newsobserver.comMarch 2, 2014 

FREETHROW02-SP-022214-RTW

UNC's Marcus Paige shoot a free throw after a foul by Wake Forest's Devin Thomas in the game on February 22, 2014 at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill.

ROBERT WILLETT — rwillett@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

  • UNC vs. Notre Dame

    When: 7 p.m.

    Where: Smith Center, Chapel Hill

    TV/Radio: ESPN/106.1-WRDU

    Projected starting lineups

    UNC (22-7, 12-4 ACC)

    G Marcus Paige 17.2 ppg, 4.5 apg

    G Leslie McDonald 10.9 ppg, 2.1 rpg

    F J.P. Tokoto 9.4 ppg, 5.8 rpg

    F James M.McAdoo 14.2 ppg, 6.8 rpg

    F Kennedy Meeks 7.7 ppg, 6.2 rpg

    Notre Dame (15-15, 6-11)

    G Eric Atkins 13.7 ppg, 4.8 apg

    G Steve Vasturia 4.8 ppg, 2.6 rpg

    G Pat Connaughton 13.5 ppg, 7 rpg

    F Tom Knight 4.1 ppg, 3.2 rpg

    C Garrick Sherman 13.6 ppg, 7.3 rpg

  • More information

    Player to watch

    Leslie McDonald, guard, North Carolina

    After five years filled with no shortage of high points and lows, McDonald will play his final home game at UNC. The fifth-year senior guard has scored at least 14 points in three of the Tar Heels’ past four games, and he had 14 points to help lead UNC to a 60-56 victory at Virginia Tech on Sunday. Outside of his 2-point performance in the overtime win at N.C. State last week, McDonald has perhaps been playing as well as he ever has at UNC in recent weeks.

    Observations

    Given UNC’s senior day tradition, walk-ons James Manor, Wade Moody and Denzel Robinson, the son of UNC assistant coach Steve Robinson, will join McDonald in the starting lineup. … The Tar Heels have won 11 consecutive games and if they win on Monday night, their 12-game winning streak would be their longest in the ACC since the 1986-87 season. … This is Notre Dame’s first trip to the Smith Center since 1993. … In the first game between these teams – a 73-62 UNC victory at Notre Dame on Feb. 8 – the Fighting Irish simply failed to match the Tar Heels’ athleticism. UNC held significant advantages in that game in offensive rebounding and in generating opportunities at the free throw line. … Since losing to UNC, Notre Dame is 3-3 but it has lost three of its past four games, with the only victory at home against Georgia Tech.

    Andrew Carter

  • Who is worse?

    North Carolina ranks 339th out of 345 Division I teams in free-throw accuracy. (Through games of Feb. 27, 2014)

    1Providence2850764279.0
    339North Carolina2848076362.9
    340Marshall2946774762.5
    341Southern U.2839363262.2
    342Old Dominion2939764961.2
    343Central Ark.2636159460.8
    344UCF2635258060.7
    345Morgan St.2537662360.4

— In the moment it might have sounded like an exaggeration – like one of those things Roy Williams says sometimes to punctuate a point or even draw some laughs. But no, the North Carolina coach said later, he really has received a lot of mail from people offering advice on free-throw shooting.

“I’ve received tons of (letters) for years and years,” Williams said last week. “Every year that you don’t make free throws, you always have people that are offering up their services.”

Williams has been befuddled this season by the Tar Heels’ inability to consistently make free throws. No. 19 UNC, which made nine of its 18 free-throw attempts during Saturday’s 60-56 victory at Virginia Tech, has made 62.6 percent of its free throws this season.

That ranks 339th nationally (through Thursday) with only six teams shooting a worse percentage. The Tar Heels are the ACC’s worst free-throw shooting team since the 2007-08 Clemson team shot 62.3 percent.

If the Tar Heels (22-7, 12-4) continue on their pace, they’d finish the season as the worst free-throw shooting team in school history – at least since UNC began tracking the stat. The school’s free throw records date to the 1950-51 season, and UNC began tracking the percentages annually starting with the 1953-54 season.

Laugh to keep from cyring

It has been that long, since 1954, that UNC has shot free throws as poorly as it is now. Williams, whose team will play Notre Dame (15-15, 6-11) on Monday night at the Smith Center, long ago stopped offering deep analysis when asked about the free-throw woes. His explanations now often are a combination of humor and exasperation – even when his team performs well at the line.

After his team made 24 of 29 free throws during a 105-72 victory Feb. 22 against Wake Forest, for instance, Williams was asked why the Tar Heels had shot so well that day as opposed to others.

“The stars and the moon aligned properly today,” he said, before a pause. “I don’t know.”

That has perhaps been the most frustrating aspect of all – neither Williams nor his players know or understand the reason for the deficiencies at the line. There seems to be no secret answer, though that hasn’t stopped the mail from streaming into Williams’ office.

“Nobody can answer that question,” Williams said after the Wake Forest game. “I got 100 letters this year from people who are experts, say they can fix free throws. That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard in my life.

“I’m not the smartest guy in the world, but I’m not the dumbest, either. If you can fix it, I would have already fixed the thing.”

Williams is blunt about the lack of an explanation – or solution – and sometimes his glibness can be interpreted humorously. Even so, UNC’s failures at the line are a serious problem in a game in which the margin of error shrinks in the postseason.

Numbers game

During the Tar Heels’ seven losses, they have made just 48.7 percent of their free throws (66.1 percent in their victories). They made 22 of 48 attempts at the line – 45.8 percent – during a three-point loss Nov. 17 against Belmont (Tenn.). A few weeks later, the Tar Heels went 4-for-11 during a 4-point loss at Alabama-Birmingham.

Then came a three-point loss at home Dec. 18 against Texas. That night, the Tar Heels missed 23 of 47 free throws. James Michael McAdoo, a junior forward, went 5-for-15 from the line – which still was better than sophomore forward J.P. Tokoto’s 4-for-16 performance in the loss against Belmont.

Hours after that loss, Tokoto stood on one end of the Smith Center court, shooting free throws while a team manager rebounded. He stayed there by himself for a while, making one after another after another.

“In practice, everybody shoots just fine,” said Tokoto, who is shooting 50.6 percent from the line. “It’s just the game, I guess. And like I’ve said, it’s just the mental aspect of it.”

Among all of the explanations for the poor free-throw shooting – mechanical deficiencies, bad luck – a mental block seems the most plausible. Missed free throws have appeared to be contagious, with one player’s missed shots affecting not only his confidence but that of his teammates.

At the Smith Center, the tension before a Tar Heels’ free-throw attempt sometimes is palpable. When the team is struggling at the line, as it often has, a made free throw results in a loud cheer that’s more an amplified sigh of relief.

Bright spots

Two players have been immune to the problems, though. Nate Britt, a reserve freshman guard, hasn’t missed a free throw since Jan. 8. Since then, he has made all 20 of his attempts.

Marcus Paige, a sophomore guard, has been the Tar Heels’ best free-throw shooter since the season’s start. One of his preseason goals was to make 90 percent of his attempts; he’s 0.9 percent from that goal.

Paige, who ranks 19th nationally in free-throw percentage, lives the strange reality of being an outstanding free-throw shooter on a bad free-throw shooting team. His teammates are shooting a combined 57.4 percent from the line, but Paige said recently he avoids lending advice.

“I try to give people confidence,” he said, “but I don’t really need to give them advice. You have your own routine, you have your own (way). If you practice what you do enough, you’re going to be successful.

“So I just try to give guys confidence, pat them on the back, tell them to get in the gym, get some reps up and I’ve got to do the same thing.”

The Tar Heels haven’t practiced free throws this season any differently. The routine is the same as it was during the 2007-08 and 2008-09 seasons, when UNC made more than 75 percent of its attempts.

In practice, Paige said, players simply “get as many reps” as possible, and the team takes breaks at times to shoot free throws with consequences attached – mainly running, if a certain percentage isn’t met. Williams has said this season in practice his team shoots about 80 percent from the line.

Not talking about practice

Games, though, have been a different story, and UNC’s performance at the line has been predictably unpredictable. The Tar Heels recently appeared to be snapping out of their season-long funk. They made 21 consecutive free throws during victories against Wake Forest and Duke.

In its past two games, though, UNC has shot worse from the line than its season average.

“The bottom line is you’ve got to keep practicing free throws, and if there’s a problem with technique, you’ve got to try to coach it and then try to change the technique problems that are there,” Williams said. “And then I think you don’t dwell on it too much because psychologically, it’s probably a bigger problem than it is mechanically.”

Tokoto, whose 4-for-16 free-throw performance against Belmont represented a low point for him, said people have contacted him on Twitter, offering advice. He smiled at the thought.

“Because everybody’s a coach,” he said.

Williams can relate. He has been coaching for 40 years, but he still receives mail telling him what to do, or how to fix a problem that he has been addressing all season.

“We’ve gotten a lot of people saying, ‘Oh, well I can do that,’ ” he said. “Well they can’t do it in front of 21,750 people and a few million watching on TV. So I just ignore them.”

Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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