Let's just do this now and get it over with:
"You have to be tough enough to step up and make shots. I'm tired of talking about free throws. You have to be tough enough to step up and make the daggone thing or go play soccer."
That's Roy Williams on the subject of free throws after his team made just 24-of-47 in a three-point loss to Texas. As ESPN stat guru Jason McCallum pointed out after the game, the Tar Heels have now missed 56 free throws in their three losses, which have come by a combined 10 points.
So maybe now you know why, after proclaiming that his team would practice at the soonest possible time allowed by the NCAA--it turned out to be 5 a.m.--Williams asked the Smith Center maintenance crew to have 16 baskets set up in time for that session.
Now, obviously, the complete practice plan hadn't quite been sketched out at that point. But you don't have to be Norman Dale to guess that if you're setting up 16 baskets, there's a good chance you're going to be shooting some free throws.
And that's, frustratingly, all you can really do. There's no point in writing 800 more words about free throws because free throws are..."It's free opportunities to get points with the clock stopped," Marcus Paige said. "We miss a lot of them and it hurts when we're trying to make runs...If you miss two free throws it's basically like turning the ball over."
It seems obvious that there's some sort of free throw voodoo going on, but Paige wasn't willing to use that excuse. "Free throws are independent events," he said. "At the end of the day you have to knock them down."
So we seem to all be in agreement that the Tar Heels need to make more free throws, and that work on that particular topic will begin while most of us are sleeping on Thursday morning.
Let's move on, then, to exactly what kind of stranglehold Texas seems to have on North Carolina right now. The Longhorns have now won six of the last seven games against the Tar Heels, including five of six in the Williams era. Especially lately, there has been a common thread: on the nights these two teams meet, Texas is just tougher.
They did it again Wednesday, gathering seemingly every loose ball and playing volleyball on the offensive glass until they were able to secure an offensive rebound. In their last four wins over UNC, Texas now has 83 offensive rebounds and has a combined 80-46 edge in second chance points. It's pretty difficult to beat any opponent, especially a good opponent, when they're getting that many second chances. The 'Horns even applied the knockout blow with an offensive rebound, as Demarcus Holland was able to rebound his own missed free throw and lay it back in to provide the eventual three-point margin of victory.
"Every single one of them was killing us on the boards, and you can't let that happen," said Jackson Simmons, who had five rebounds in his 14 minutes of action.
It's become a common theme in this series. As stout as Carolina is against Michigan State, the Tar Heels--for some reason--have a much tougher time matching up against Texas.
Rick Barnes' team is athletic, and they used that athleticism to commit to the boards and prevent any Carolina transition opportunities. The Tar Heels finished with zero fast break points for the first time this season. On the rare times they had a quick scoring chance, they committed at least two unforced turnovers on possible easy baskets.
"Effort" has become the catchall word after every Carolina loss in the past couple years. It's useful because it's vague. It could mean the Tar Heels need to put more effort into their free throw practice, it could mean they need to put a rear end on someone and box him out, and it could mean they need to make better decisions on the break.
Their on-court leader has no patience for any shortcoming in that category.
"I'm the leader of this team," Paige said. "I try to push certain buttons on guys to get them to play harder. But that's something you have to decide to do yourself. If you want to make an impact, you have to play hard. Some guys are a little slow to get that to click. That's what gets you beat."
Adam Lucas is the editor of CAROLINA.