Just a guess: there will be plenty of other places to read about free throws. This column, then, is not about free throws.
Here are three Tar Heel problems from Sunday's 83-80 loss to Belmont that had absolutely, totally, nothing to do with free throws. As Marcus Paige said after the game, "It's free throws. What are you going to say?"
1. Carolina's execution in the final 2:30 was not good. Because Sunday was the 400th game in the Smith Center, it provided the occasion to look back at some memorable Tar Heel wins in the building. One came immediately to mind following Sunday's loss: the 1997 win over NC State, when the Wolfpack held a 56-47 lead with 2:30 left and managed to lose 59-56.
If you remember that game, your impression is likely that State utterly collapsed in the final 150 seconds. Things weren't much better on Sunday. Not only was Carolina ahead by eight with 2:30 left, but they were also up six with the ball and 1:10 remaining.
The final five times that Carolina had the ball looked like this:
1. James Michael McAdoo missed a jumper, but Brice Johnson grabbed the offensive rebound. The possession ended with a turnover.
3. Paige hit a pair of free throws.
4. Turnover (on a possession when Belmont essentially had just four players, because Craig Bradshaw had gone down with an apparent cramp and was hobbling).
5. J.P. Tokoto missed a jumper.
In other words, over the final 2:30, Carolina got just two field goals to the rim and went to the free throw line twice. That's how you lose an eight-point lead.
Paige summed it up this way: "I had some uncharacteristic turnovers at the end that cost us the game."
That's an admirable job of taking responsibility, but all the burden doesn't fall on Paige.
2. There was confusion on the floor at least twice in the final 20 seconds. Carolina had spent most of the second half switching all screens, and the approach had stifled the Bruins during the Tar Heel comeback from an 11-point deficit. But leading 80-78 with 16 seconds to go, Tokoto and Luke Davis appeared confused about exactly what they were supposed to do.
Reece Chamberlain, being guarded by Davis, dribbled to the top of the key and handed off to J.J. Mann, being guarded by Tokoto. The way that exchange had been played for most of the half, Mann now belonged to Davis. But Tokoto tried to go under the screen, forcing Davis to change direction and giving Mann a look that he (of course) swished.
Then, after Mann's shot gave Belmont a one-point lead, Johnson appeared to want a timeout. But Roy Williams' longstanding policy is that if more than seven seconds remain, his team should attack and try to avoid letting the defense get set. Johnson, who had a terrific game, never really got into the play, and the Tar Heels settled for a midrange jumper from Tokoto.
"It was confusion," Paige said.
Paige, Carolina's designated go-to guy at this point in the season, never touched the ball on the final possession, and McAdoo, who had 27 points, never touched the ball in the frontcourt.
"I took a dribble to the middle and saw Marcus curling around the perimeter," said Tokoto, who was impressive in the postgame about owning up to his struggles in the game. "I was about to hit him, and I saw his man was shadowing him, so I knew he would get a hand on it if I threw it right then. I was counting in my head, and thought three seconds. I let it go and hoped we'd get an offensive rebound if it didn't go in."
It shouldn't be much of a surprise that the Tar Heels weren't exactly smooth on the final attempt. Look at the five on the court: Paige, Tokoto, McAdoo, Johnson and Davis. How many times, cumulatively, do you think that particular five has been on the court together--even in practice--to go over a similar situation? Carolina's lack of depth has necessitated some unusual lineups at unusual times. But that's the personnel that's available right now, and there is absolutely no substitution for being required to make a last-second play in a game environment.
3. Opponents are not at all concerned about Carolina's perimeter shooting, other than Paige. That makes the Tar Heels, who made just one three-pointer in each half on Sunday and now have five three-pointers in the last 100 minutes of game action, much easier to defend.
As Roy Williams has said repeatedly over the last two months, his best teams have offensive balance. This one, at least right now, doesn't. That can sometimes be camouflaged with some easy fast break points, but right now, the Tar Heels aren't getting those, either; they have six fast break points combined in the last two games.
That's where getting more confidence for Nate Britt will help. The freshman has played his way to the bench in the second half of the last two games, a situation not uncommon for rookie point guards. As he gets more comfortable with knowing when to push the ball and when to pull it back, some easier scoring chances will be available.
Does that make Sunday's outcome any less frustrating right this minute? Of course not. But at least it's not free throws.
Adam Lucas is the editor of CAROLINA.