With only one game remaining in the regular season and a current 12-game win streak, the North Carolina Tar Heels are arguably the hottest team in the country. After an 11-7 start and dropping out of the top-25 for a number of weeks, the Heels have climbed all the way back to 14th in the AP poll as they prepare for the biggest game in the college basketball season, facing arch-rival Duke in Cameron Indoor Stadium. While the Heels have finally figured out their team chemistry and have been playing good basketball as of late, there is still one major cause of concern surrounding this year’s team: Free throws.
The game of basketball is constantly evolving just as many things do, and in recent years it seems as though players and coaches have been focusing less and less on free throw shooting. As someone who has played organized basketball for roughly 75% of my life, it infuriates me that anyone on the college and professional level doesn’t shoot close to 75% from the free throw line.
As a team, the Heels have been nothing short of horrendous from the free throw line this season. The team has made just 499 of 803 total free throws, which translates to 62.1%. If the team were to finish the year with the same percentage, it would tie the worst free throw percentage of any season in the history of North Carolina basketball.
While my dad and I were at the Notre Dame game in Chapel Hill for senior night on March 3rd, James Michael McAdoo stepped to the free throw line during a close game in the second half and missed a pair of free throws. Following the second miss, my dad yells out “YOU ARE PITIFUL MCADOO!!” to which an older man in front of us turned around and motioned to my dad that he needs to encourage McAdoo and provide positive energy rather than chastise him.
There are many UNC fans who feel the same as the old man in this story: that we need to encourage the players after missed free throws. If you are one of these fans, you need to wake up and smell the coffee.
At this point in the season, the time for encouragement after missed free throws has long passed, and it is totally and completely unacceptable for players of this caliber to miss free throws. I feel the same way for college basketball players on any level, but especially players on the high-major level and those playing at one of, if not the most prestigious basketball programs in the country.
We simply can’t baby these players anymore and say, “Oh, that’s okay buddy, you’ll do better next time!” These guys are grown men that have spent countless hours in their lives with a basketball in their hands, yet they are unable to make uncontested free throws.
I blame the coaching staff just as much as the players. If a team simply isn’t good at a certain aspect of the game, it is the coaches’ job to fix it. Coaches know the importance of free throws especially come tournament time, but somehow the team has not improved at all during the course of the season. Without including the time that these players spend in the weight room, training room, and film room, they probably spend around three to four hours each day on the court itself, working to improve their game. Whether it is mental or mechanical, if this team wants to succeed in the big dance they are simply going to have to figure out the problem and correct it. The UNC coaches should enforce that each player make AT LEAST 50 free throws before they are allowed to leave the court after practice. If the players are knocking down their free throws in practice but are having mental blocks in the games, the coaches simply have to find a way to fix it.
Honestly, though, it really is unacceptable. I can’t explain how many times I have seen James McAdoo step out and knock down a contested jump shot from the elbow, and then miss one or both free throws on the following possession. It literally doesn’t make sense how a player can make a jump shot from the free throw line with a defender in his face, and then miss shots from the same spot on the floor with no one guarding him.
I don’t mean to only focus on McAdoo, but people need to realize how costly McAdoo’s missed free throws can be. For all the muscles McAdoo has, he is pretty much a softie when it comes to contact. Often times because of this softness McAdoo is unable to finish around the basket even with minimal contact, but is sent to the free throw line instead. When McAdoo steps to the line and only makes one out of two or misses both, we go from potentially getting three points on a given possession (if he could finish And-1’s) to often only one or even no points.
This season, McAdoo has taken 231 free throws: He has made 120, and missed 111. Leslie McDonald, who many fans thought was going to be the best shooter in a Carolina uniform in recent years, has made just 40 of his 64 free throws. Brice Johnson has taken 77 free throws this season: made 48, missed 29. We have seen tremendous improvement in JP Tokoto’s jump shot, but his free throw woes are still a problem. This season, Tokoto has taken 88 free throws, and made just 45 of them.
Marcus Paige and Nate Britt have become the only players that this team can rely on to make free throws consistently, but even Paige has struggled at times. In the last two minutes of the Notre Dame game, Paige, who is an 88% shooter from the line this season, made just 2-4 free throws and almost cost the Heels the game.
We have seen numerous times how missed free throws have cost the Heels this season. In the shocking three-point loss to Belmont early in the season, the Heels missed 26 free throws. 26!!!! That is absurd. In the 4-point loss to the Blazers of UAB, the Heels made just 4 of their 11 free throws, which converts to 36%. Once again, the Heels missed 23 free throws in a 3-point home loss to the Texas Longhorns.
The Heels have been finding ways to win recently which is a good sign, but ultimately missed free throws are going to cost them a deep tournament run. They will be playing against the best teams from each conference once March Madness starts, and these teams will be more effective at capitalizing on the Heels’ misses than some of the teams the Heels have played in recent weeks. For any of you fans who think I have been to harsh; this is me providing constructive criticism. At some point the players have to be able to step up and make free throws when they matter. Until that point, the Heels will remain a good team and not a great team.