UNC basketball: Cause for concern?

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.

Roy Williams won't be laughing if free throws cost the Heels a chance at another Final Four run.

Roy Williams won’t be laughing if free throws cost the Heels a chance at another Final Four run.

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.

[How UNC made it 10 straight]

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.

  • Jonah

    Really stupid piece. “the North Carolina Tar Heels are arguably the hottest team in the country with a 15 game streak” ….. ummmm, did you ever hear of the Florida Gators? You know, the ones with the 22 game streak and what is it? Oh yeah, the #1 ranking in the polls.

    • Freddie Etters

      Sec bball is not comparable to acc, sorry, uf would not be unbeaten if thry played syracuse, duke, unc, virginia. Thats a dream world.

    • John Ernstes

      To respond to your post Jonah, I said that UNC is ONE OF the hottest teams in the country; I never said they were hotter than Florida. Everyone around the country would agree that prior to losing to Duke the other night, UNC was in fact one of the hottest teams in the country, as they jumped more than 11 spots in the AP poll.

  • Bones

    Right on John Ernstes. There is NO excuse for the poor free throw shooting by the Heels. Coach Williams says you can’t teach free throw shooting, but I can’t accept that. With a great free throw shooter like Hubert Davis on the staff, surely the Heels players can develop better style at the line than they now have (i.e. McAdoo and Desmond Hubert). I wonder if having each player make 50 free throws with no correction of poor technique is the answer. Someone please TEACH these kids how to do it correctly!!!

  • Greg

    Superb analysis John.

    Greg
    UNC Chapel Hill
    c/o ’83

    GO HEELS!

  • dizzie1

    How did this article get published? There is no insight whatsoever. It is a juvenile rant that can be summed up in one sentence; I am mad that the Tarheels don’t hit more free throws. Do you really think that as a fan your actions from the homecourt bleachers have any effect on whether you team hits their free throws?

    • John Ernstes

      As a UNC alum, you’re right I am mad that they don’t make more free throws than they do. And to answer your question about whether my actions as a fan from the bleachers effects the team in any way, I would say without question. Are you saying that there is no such thing as homecourt advantage?

      • dizzie1

        What I am saying is that your determination to show a negative attitude toward the poor free-throw performance, whether from the stands or outside the stadium, will have no effect on team performance. If hoardes of fans were to join you, it could perhaps have a detrimental effect. Yelling at players and coaches in the game or outside of it won’t improve things. The only way I think fans could MAYBE help improve free-throw percentage would be through more positive reinforcement, such as a standing ovation when free throws are made. However, players may view such an act as condescending. Go Heels.

        • John Ernstes

          This discussion pretty much boils down to different philosophies between you and I. So when you begin your post by saying, ” How did this article get published? There is no insight whatsoever” it comes off as somewhat disrespectful. It is an opinion piece. That is what I was told to do as a correspondent: To take a stance and be opinionated about the issue.

  • shane

    Yeah, I don’t think free Throws are not being addressed by the coaching staff. I do agree that for the Heels they are terrible and sometimes we are too P.C in getting points across. However, it has been made known that they hit them in practice. So, how do you coach psycology?

    • John Ernstes

      I think that instilling confidence in practice and behind closed doors is the best way to improve a player’s “psyche.” If a coach does everything he possibly can both mentally and physically in practice to instill confidence from the free throw line, it should translate to the games, even if only a little bit of improvement is seen. I am not only blaming the coaches by any means, because they aren’t the ones shooting.

  • Jon

    I normally never comment on posts like this one. With that being said I wonder if you have ever played basketball in your life, other than high school? It is always easy as a fan to sit there and say what is wrong with a team and what a team needs to do. My question for you is that: if you think that you could coach better that Roy then why not submit an application to UNC for the men’s basketball head coaching job? As for the comment about how can someone hit a contested jump shot at the free throw line and then miss a free throw without anyone on them is a valid question coming from a fan. However, if you played basketball then this is not a valid question and the reason is this: For some players it is a lot easier to shoot a jump shot in the flow of the game and not really thinking about the shot than for someone to shoot a free throw whenever there is no action going on and all eyes are on you. Maybe a poor excuse because they are playing at a major D1 school, but at this point Roy could have them hit 1,000 free throws before they leave practice but hitting that many in practice is totally different that hitting them whenever 20,000+ people are watching. I agree they should be able to hit more than 62%. But sometimes it’s much more than practicing them and hitting them in practice. I feel like it’s more of a mental thing now, especially with people from the media giving their point of view. Yes they are men and should be able to hit them but they are only 18-23+ years old. With all that being said I will say yes missed free throws could come back to hurt them especially in the NCAA tournament, but what I like, and see, unlike earlier in the year despite the missed free throws they are doing whatever it takes to win. And at the end of the day if you shoot 50% from the line and win is a lot better than shooting 90% and loosing.

    • John Ernstes

      Jon,

      I’m not sure how to answer your first question: I tried out for a walk-on spot as a member of “Blue Steel” while I attended UNC but I got cut from the team, so I ended up playing on the club team at UNC. So to answer your question, yes I played basketball other than high school.

      In response to your second question, your sarcasm in suggesting that I should apply for the UNC head coaching job was somewhat comical, but ultimately unrealistic as I’m sure we both know. If it makes you feel any better, I am an aspiring D-1 coach and hope to reach my goals, so I appreciate your support.

      And I agree that going 50% from the line and winning is better than 90% and losing, but I’d rather go 90% and win than 50% and lose in the NCAA tourney. I also agree that it’s easier to hit free throws at practice than in front of 20,000 people, but isn’t it also the coaches’ job to instill confidence in their players? I am not solely blaming the coaches for the missed free throws, but when these kids/men are 18-23 and impressionable, isn’t it the coaches job to instill confidence in their players and help improve the player’s moral and also fix anything mental that is preventing players from making more free throws?

  • DasCentralScrutinizer

    INR

  • Shane

    Tell it Jon.
    Earlier was my first post ever and now my second. But, I’m tired of everyone bashing Coach. I feel these past few years has been some of the best coaching in recent ACC history. The NBA will take anyone now of days, so every year is a rebuilding year. In college basketball experience is king and UNC has been hit as hard as anyone. I watch this team and it reminds me of a the teams of old (working inside out) offensively speaking. Instead of outside in (like dook). I actually like it. But, now I’m old school (well, watching since 1974). So, I wish these so call HEEL fans would just watch and enjoy the wins and be heart broke with the losses. But, support our HEELS and our coach either way.

    • John Ernstes

      Shane,

      I would disagree with you that every year is a rebuilding year. And while I don’t necessarily disagree with you that the last few years has been some of the best coaching in recent ACC history, I know many people would do in fact disagree with you. I’ve heard many people argue that Roy is a better recruiter than in-game coach, but that even his recruiting isn’t elite because how hard does a coach really have to recruit kids to come play basketball at UNC?

      I’m not sure if you are talking about me when you say “so-called Heel fans”, but I assure you that as a graduate of UNC, I bleed Carolina blue. My criticism is my way of expressing that if UNC can make free throws down the stretch, they could make a deep tournament run.

  • John Ernstes

    Thank you to everyone who commented; I appreciate both the positive and negative feedback. I look forward to continuing these conversations. Go Heels!