(Lack of) fouls key for UNC

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Over the years, North Carolina players have gotten used to hearing coach Roy Williams scream three things in practice:

  1. “Run!”

  2. “Box Out!”

  3. “Don’t foul!”

The first two are key, considering how Williams wants to push the pace and dominate the boards. But so, to Williams, is the third.

“Every year, every team, I’ve wanted my team to make more free throws than the other team shot,’’ Williams said.

And that doesn’t mean just getting to the line -- but keeping foes off of it, something at which the fifth-ranked Tar Heels have excelled.

According to ESPN Stats and Information, over the past 10 years -- nine of which Williams has been head coach -- UNC has allowed opponents only 13.3 free throw attempts per game, 21st in the nation.

Entering Saturday’s game at Virginia, the Tar Heels lead the nation in that statistic (allowing only 13.3), while the No. 20 Cavaliers rank third (14.0).

Virginia’s lack of fouls can be somewhat credited to its pace; it’s known for playing great defense, but slowing things down. But for UNC, one of the highest-scoring teams in the country, it comes down to discipline, senior forward Tyler Zeller said recently.

“We try to make sure that the fouls we do use are trying to make a play on the ball or a blocked shot or something,’’ the 7-footer said. “And I think your defensive principles are strong, if you’re in the right place at the right time, you’re less likely to foul.”

That means moving your feet, Williams said. Telling the big guys not to foul unless it’s above their chest. Not reaching in.

“I get really ticked off, because fouling a lot of times is really lazy -- ‘Well, I didn’t get position, so I’ll just reach in,’” Williams said. “It’s stupid. And what we do a lot is say, ‘Let’s use our brain a lot.’”

And they do. According to ESPN Stats and Info:

  • Only one Tar Heel player, Zeller, ranks in the top 25 in the ACC in personal fouls (He was No. 15, as of Thursday, with 58).

  • Point guard Kendall Marshall commits only 1.9 fouls per 40 minutes, seventh-fewest in the ACC.

  • Among ACC forwards, Harrison Barnes (2.4) and John Henson (2.4) commit the third-fewest fouls per 40 minutes.

Thus, UNC has attempted almost double the free throws of its opponents (618 to 319). The Tar Heels are ninth in the nation in free throws attempted per game (25.8).

They rank eighth in personal fouls per game (14.6).

“Historically, even looking back to when Dean Smith coached, UNC has just been a team that doesn’t foul that much,’’ said John Clougherty, the ACC’s head of officials.

A former official himself, he knows that refs are often accused of favoring UNC because of the low whistle count. But he said that whether teams foul is determined by a lot of factors: whether they play zone, how much they trap, how aggressively they choose to play defense, the quality of athletes.

“Years ago, we had a coach -- and I won’t tell you which coach it was -- say to a group of refs at an officials’ clinic that he believed that Carolina got a favorable whistle on all 50-50 plays,’’ Clougherty said. “In his mind, he justified getting the short end of the calls by saying Carolina was getting favorable treatment. But in the officials’ position, his players were slower to get to the spot, slower to get everywhere. … UNC had the better athletes, so it was easier for them to stay in front of their man, easier not to foul.”

Clougherty also said that his officials study teams’ and players’ tendencies, so they know what to look for when it comes to fouls. And that they don’t favor anybody.

“Some teams figure they have five fouls each player, and don’t mind using them,’’ he said. “Other teams don’t want to give up points at the line.”

Put the Tar Heels in that latter category.

Over the past five seasons, the most UNC has put opponents on the line was in 2008-09, when foes averaged 16.5 free throw attempts per game.

In their past two games, the Tar Heels have gotten into some unusual foul trouble -- what with Marshall and Zeller playing with four apiece during the second half at Maryland, and Zeller, Barnes and freshman James Michael McAdoo finishing with four each in the Duke loss.

But those were an anomaly.

“I’m screaming all the time ‘Pressure, pressure. Don’t foul, don’t foul. Don’t reach, slide your feet, slide your feet. It’s the third most thing I’m yelling,’’ Williams said. “… You really have a better chance of getting what you want if you emphasize it the most."

Jeremy Lundblad and Mark Malzewski at ESPN Stats and Information contributed to the research for this story. Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.

Fewest Opp Free Throws Attempted Per Game in D-I This Season

1. North Carolina 13.3

2. Wisconsin 13.8

3. Virginia 14.0

4. Mississippi State 14.1

5. Cincinnati 14.1

Fewest Opp Free Throws Attempted Per Game in the ACC This Season

1. North Carolina 13.3

2. Virginia 14.0

3. Clemson 15.8

4. Boston College 16.3

5. Maryland 17.7

6. NC State 18.2

7. Georgia Tech 18.2

8. Duke 18.7

North Carolina’s Opp FT Att Per Game, Last 5 Seasons

2011-12 13.3

2010-11 15.7

2009-10 15.8

2008-09 16.5

2007-08 16.4

Source: Jeremy Lundblad and Mark Malzewski, ESPN Stats and Information