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Why Isn't UNC Getting to the Free Throw Line?

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Long Beach State fans printed a lot of signs for nothing — UNC only took 11 free throws that game.
Long Beach State fans printed a lot of signs for nothing — UNC only took 11 free throws that game.

Stare at the tempo-free statistics for UNC and you se pretty much what you would expect for a young team. There's the third in the nation tempo. Then there's the smattering of categories where the Heels typically excel, such as offensive rebounding (48th) and defensive efficiency (21st, not that folks will continue to think Carolina struggles here). And there are the points where the Heels are weak or even slip below average — here's where we toss a shout out to their free throw shooting — but overall, there's nothing that would strike a fan as particularly out of the ordinary.

Except for one thing.

There is a statistical category where UNC is 344th out of 347 teams. Where they sit smack dab between Lamar (1-10) and Grambling (0-8). And oddly enough, it's a category where the Heels normally do well enough to draw complaints from other teams' fans. And yet so far this year, Carolina's been absolutely miserable.

UNC can't draw a foul to save its life.

The actual statistical measure is free throws attempted versus field goals attempted, the fourth of Dean Oliver's four factors, and the one most often overlooked. After all, every layman can get the concept of making more shots, getting more rebounds, and not turning the ball over. But getting fouled is a bit tougher. Still, folks realize the advantage of getting to the line, and Roy Williams has long set the goal of making more free throws than the other team shoots. A feat which, given Carolina's shooting woes of the last few years, requires a pretty big foul imbalance.

And yet so far this year, the only ACC team to attempt fewer free throws than the Heels is Virginia, whose glacial pace (345th in the nation!) gives them 15 fewer trips down the court than UNC. Only two Carolina players average three or more free throws a game, James Michael McAdoo and Dexter Strickland. McAdoo, as the primary interior scoring threat makes sense, and Strickland has always slashed to the basket, a sure recipe for drawing contact. But beyond that, there's not much fouling going on.

P.J. Hairston actually draws for fouls per minute of play than Strickland. (He also takes more shots per minute than anyone on the team, which might be one of the things limiting his playing time.) But there's a large drop off after those three. Brice Johnson is of course undersized at the center position in his freshman year, so it's not too surprising he shies from contact. But he actually fouls at a faster rate than either Joel James or Desmond Hubert, because he's the only center resembling a scoring threat at the moment. Leslie McDonald gets fouled at about the rate you'd expect for a shooting guard, and Reggie Bullock and Marcus Paige practically never get to the line. Paige has taken three free throws this season; for comparison's sake, Pe'Shon Howard, playing a similar role at Maryland has been to the line five times as much, and Lorenzo Brown at State ten times.

So what's keeping opponents off the Heels? The fact that the offense is more perimeter-oriented than in years past plays a part, although UNC is still far from being a three-point shooting machine. The lack of physicality among many of the players doesn't help either. And opposing fans, whose evaluation of Carolina's foul-drawing abilities have always been a bit jaded will simply say these players haven't learned how to flop yet. I think it's a combination of the speed this team runs at and the difference in the personnel manning the paint this season. McAdoo is doing good work, but he doesn't have the same inevitability heading towards the basket that Tylers Hansbrough and Zeller did; opposing defense don't see the foul as the only way to stop him, and feel comfortable leaving Hubert, James, or Johnson to try simpler double teams. We'll see what happens when conference play starts, where UNC's offense will inevitably slow a step, and the games will be closer fought.

Because the irony is, teams can still get a slight advantage from fouling the Tar Heels. UNC is sub-65% percent from the line, putting the odds of making two free throws lower than Carolina's shooting percentage from inside the arc. The Heels have the lowest free throw percentage of the Roy Williams era at the moment; they just don't get the practice during games.