During the 2008-09 national championship season, UNC made 112 more free throws than its opponents attempted. This year, the Tar Heels have attempted 27 fewer free throws than its opponents (746-773).
“It’s frustrating,” UNC head coach Roy Williams said during his live radio show on Monday night. “I’ve been a head coach for 27 years and this is the first year that the other team has shot more free throws than my team has. So that’s frustrating to me because one of my goals is get fouled.”
The foul discrepancy has materialized to such a glaring extent this season due to factors on both ends of the court.
“We don’t attack the basket with our post players as much as we have in the past,” Williams told reporters on Tuesday. “We shoot turnaround jump shots and fadeaways sometimes. We don’t attack the basket off the dribble as much as I would like, and then on the defensive end, we’re the world’s best at reaching in and slapping you on the little finger as you lay the ball up.
“It’s been an issue for us. It’s been something that we’ve talked about all year and I think it’s really hurt us. I really do.”
Junior point guard Marcus Paige said the foul topic has been a “huge talking point” all season long and that the coaching staff has harped on the issue every day in practice.
“We just need to do a better job of not reaching in and fouling at the last second,” Paige said. “[It’s] letting our big guys challenge people at the rim instead of reaching in and fouling them and just keeping our hands off defensively. That’s such an advantage for a team to be in the bonus with double-digit minutes left to play in either half.”
Paige noted the significant differential in some of UNC’s losses, such as the ACC Tournament championship game in which Notre Dame attempted 25 more free throws (32-7). Williams was quick to point out on Monday that 12 of those attempts were due to UNC’s intentional fouling at the game’s end, although that trend has played out in other losses as well.
The Tar Heels attempted 64 more free throws than their opponents in their 24 wins this season, while their opponents attempted 91 more free throws in their 11 losses.
UNC ranks 153rd nationally in defensive fouls per possession (26.8), according to teamrankings.com. On the other end of the court, the Tar Heels rank 222nd in free throws attempted per offensive play (25.4) and 235th in free throws attempted per field goal attempted (0.348).
Less than 20 percent of UNC’s points have come at the free throw line (19.1) which ranks 257th nationally, according to kenpom.com.
Interior superiority, both in scoring and rebounding, has long been a staple of Williams’s teams. The combination of those aspects typically leads to a large number of free throw attempts. Look no further than UNC’s 2009-10 team – the only one of Williams’s squads in Chapel Hill to not reach the NCAA Tournament – and its 854-585 edge in free throw attempts to under the standard foundation.
The primary reason for the differential this season is the style of play of UNC’s frontcourt. Brice Johnson is more likely to take a turnaround jumper than to post up a defender and drop step him. Kennedy Meeks has been effective at times in establishing solid position to execute basic post moves, although his inconsistency in that regard has limited his trips to the charity stripe.
As a result, Meeks leads the team with just 123 free throw attempts, while Johnson ranks third with 105 attempts behind wing J.P. Tokoto (110).
Not only did Tyler Hansbrough make more free throws in ’08-09 than Meeks and Johnson has combined to attempt this season (249-228), but James Michael McAdoo also attempted 29 more free throw attempts (257) last year than UNC’s starting frontcourt duo in one less game.
A closer look at UNC's "and-1" stats - compiled by statistician Adrian Atkinson (@FreeportKid on Twitter) - indicates that five of UNC's last 11 teams had one post player with at least 30 "and-1" opportunities and four other teams with at least 20 chances. On the current team, Meeks has drawn 19 "and-1" opportunities while Johnson has drawn just eight after converting 7-of-9 last season.
Opponents previously attempted more free throws than the Tar Heels during the 1953-54 and 2001-02 seasons.
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