When a player or team continues to be cursed at the free-throw line, Roy Williams said recently, the assumption is that the solution involves some sort of voodoo magic. Maybe some candles or sorcery, or a combination of those things.
“Everybody thinks that your bad free-throw shooters would get into a room and get some candles out and do a seance and everything,” Williams, the UNC coach, said recently. “I don’t do that.”
No, Williams and his coaching staff don’t use any wizardry. No candles, either, or any reliance on a medium to communicate with spirits from the afterlife. There is plenty of repetition, though, and practice – and, this season, a lot of success at the free-throw line for the Tar Heels.
Entering the game Wednesday night against Wake Forest, UNC has made 74.7 percent of its free-throw attempts, which ranks 26th nationally. If this holds, and if the Tar Heels continue to make free throws at this rate, it would be their best performance at the free-throw line since the 2008-09 season, when they made 75.2 percent of their free throws.
Outside of the obvious – having a roster filled with good free-throw shooters – Williams doesn’t know why his team was so good from the line in 2009. And he’s not sure why his current team has improved at the line the way it has.
Ask him about free-throw success, or struggles, and he’ll say the same thing today as he did two years ago, when UNC endured one of its worst free-throw shooting seasons in school history. Williams said then that his team was practicing free throws the same way as always. Which is what he says now, too.
“We’re doing exactly the same thing we’re doing now that we did two years ago,” Williams said. “I mean, exactly the same thing we did in ’09 when we had four guys shooting over 80 percent in the starting lineup. Exactly.”
If you’re at this level and the head coach has to teach you how to shoot free throws, you’re going to get your rear end beat a lot.
UNC coach Roy Williams
The free-throw practice routine that Williams employs is simple, as is his philosophy when it comes to free throws: Just make them. They’re an aspect of the game, in Williams’ estimation, that shouldn’t require a lot of coaching.
“If you’re at this level and the head coach has to teach you how to shoot free throws, you’re going to get your rear end beat a lot,” he said.
Yet the Tar Heels often practice free throws. Before practices and during them, UNC’s players will head to the line and shoot. The attempts, and the made shots, are charted so that coaches can track them.
It happens several times per practice, in every practice, and the free-throw sessions are scheduled to mimic the kind of situations in which a player might find himself during a game. Which is to say, Williams and his staff like to schedule free throws at a time in practice when players might be tired.
That is UNC’s practice routine, year after year. And yet consistent team success remains elusive, given roster turnover and the ebbs and flow a player might experience from game to game and even from season to season.
Two years ago, for instance, UNC shot 62.6 percent from the free-throw line during the 2013-14 season. That ranked 343rd nationally, and it was UNC’s worst season-long free throw shooting percentage on record (UNC’s annual free throw statistics begin with the 1953-54 season).
Brice Johnson, a forward who played about 20 minutes per game two years ago, made 62.2 percent of his attempts that season. Now, in his senior season, he’s making 78.9 percent of his attempts at the line.
Isaiah Hicks, the junior forward, has experienced similar improvement. He made 57.9 percent of his free-throw attempts as a freshman, and then 62.1 percent last season as a sophomore. Now he’s shooting 79.5 percent at the line, and he leads UNC in free throw attempts with 73.
Not that Williams has an explanation for it.
“I don’t talk about free throws,” he said. “We shoot them in practice and we let them go. We really do. … Marcus (Paige) and Brice are seniors, and they’ll tell you that we’re not doing one thing differently than we’ve done, ever. Because I just don’t talk about it.
“Good free-throw shooters go up there and make the sucker and go to the other end and guard.”
Which is what the Tar Heels have often done this season. Of the top eight players in their rotation, the only one who hasn’t made at least 70 percent of his free throws this season is Theo Pinson, the sophomore forward who has made 69 percent.
And Pinson’s free-throw percentage is 8 points better than it was last season. Which fits into UNC’s theme of improvement, which applies to nearly every member of the team.
Four of the Tar Heels’ five starters have been more effective at the line this season than they were last season. All of them except for Paige, the senior guard. He’s shooting 78.9 percent at the line, down from the 86.5 percent of his free throws that he made a season ago.
“I’m so funked out from the free throw line,” Paige said before his team’s game against N.C. State on Saturday, when he made one of his two free throw attempts. “I didn’t shoot any in the Syracuse game, but I feel like I missed one – I missed one at Florida State, and I missed a couple here and there throughout the year.
“It’s always my first one of the night, too, that I’ll miss.”
If Paige’s relative struggle is the worst that UNC endures at the line, Williams would likely take it. Yet in the first half against N.C. State on Saturday, UNC proved how elusive constant free-throw success an be. UNC missed 6 of its 11 free throws in the first half, before making 7 of 8 in the second.
It wasn’t as if Williams broke out the candles at halftime. There was nothing magical about the Tar Heels’ second-half free-throw resurgence on Saturday. Which isn’t to say that Williams isn’t at least a bit superstitious about the whole thing.
“If we miss them,” he said to a reporter who asked about free throws in a recent press conference, “I’m going to come hunt your butt down.”