Free throws are Carolina's biggest obstacle

It’s been well-documented how much North Carolina relies on Marcus Paige's 3-point shooting, but the end of Saturday's 82-77 win over Kentucky emphasized how valuable he is shooting free throws, too.

Paige leads the team and the ACC with an 89.8 free throw percentage. He helped clinch the win over the Wildcats by going 6-for-6 in the final 40 seconds. Without him, the Tar Heels could have squandered their lead and lost.

Take Paige’s free throw totals out of the lineup, and the rest of the Tar Heels are shooting just 54.7 percent from the line this season.

Watching Carolina struggle at the charity stripe has prompted concerned fans to offer unsolicited advice. Shoot left-handed. Try it granny-style. Or shoot it like a jumper.

“I’ve already gotten 2,700 suggestions,” coach Roy Williams said. “Through 41 years of coaching you don’t [overemphasize it]. The more attention you pay to it, sometimes, you make it worse. We practice it. That’s what we do, we just keep practicing.”

It’s yet another area where the absence of P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald is affecting Carolina. Hairston is a career 80 percent shooter from the line. McDonald, who doesn’t take a lot of attempts, shot 79.5 percent from the stripe last season.

In late-game situations, a lineup with Paige, Hairston and McDonald would allow Williams to rest a bit easier knowing they would handle the ball frequently and would be the ones who were getting fouled.

Instead, Williams may have to prepare himself for more situations like the one against Kentucky.

Wildcats coach John Calipari let his players hack J.P. Tokoto on every possession down the stretch. Trailing by five with 2:30 left, Calipari had James Young foul Tokoto, who in turn missed the front end of a one-and-one. Williams had to take Tokoto out of the game for offensive possessions the rest of the way.

Don’t be surprised if future opponents resort to such tactics in a close game because Williams doesn’t have a lot of options.

Freshman guard Nate Britt is 14-of-21 (66.7 percent), and missed the front end of a bonus attempt with the pressure on and a minute left against Kentucky. Tokoto is currently shooting 37.1 percent from the free throw line. Forward Jackson Simmons, who played most of the final two minutes, went 0-for-4 against the Wildcats and is now just 3-of-10 for the season.

Those numbers make Brice Johnson (63 percent) and James Michael McAdoo (58.7 percent) look like relatively good free throw shooters. Center Joel James has made 7 of 10 attempts this season, but those didn’t come under the pressure of a close game.

Since the Tar Heels' 83-80 loss to Belmont, in which they missed 26 of their 48 attempts, it’s a mental hurdle every time someone not named Paige heads to the line. It looks like it will continue to be something Carolina has to deal with the entire season.

Williams added that there was no good way to emphasize free throw shooting without making it too psychological. “I don’t know that you can," he said.