published Tuesday, March 4th, 2014

North Carolina basketball team peaking at right time

  • photo
    North Carolina's J.P. Tokoto (13) drives to the basket as Notre Dame's Zach Auguste and Pat Connaughton, right, defend during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Chapel Hill, N.C., Monday, March 3, 2014.
    Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Fifteen feet.

That's the distance from the foul line to the backboard on every college basketball court in the country. That may also be all that stands between North Carolina and its sixth NCAA championship.

Winners of 11 straight games heading into tonight's regular-season home finale against Notre Dame, 14th-ranked Tar Heels already have knocked off defending national champ Louisville on a neutral court, Michigan State on the road and both rolling Duke and reeling Kentucky at home to post as many big wins as anyone in college hoops this season.

Unfortunately for UNC, on those nights those aptly named foul shots haven't fallen, the Powder Blue Crew has paid a high price for its free-throw woes. While the Heels have hit 66 percent of their freebies in their 22 wins to date, they've managed just 48.7 percent in their seven losses.

"In practice, everybody is shooting just fine," forward J.P. Tokoto told the Raleigh News and Observer on Monday. "It's just the games, I guess. ... It's just the mental aspect of it."

It's gotten so bad that North Carolina's 62.6 percent foul shooting for the season currently stands as the worst since the school began keeping records in 1951. Another perspective: Providence leads the NCAA in free-throw percentage at .790. The Tar Heels rank 339th out of 345 teams.

Long ago exasperated with such numbers, UNC coach Roy Williams has said on more than one occasion this season, "If I could fix it, I would have already fixed the thing."

But what he has expertly fixed since a 1-4 start in Atlantic Coast Conference play is everything else. In winning 11 in a row the Tar Heels have become not only one of the nation's most dangerous teams but also one of its most complete aside from the free-throw line.

Thanks to five players 6-foot-9 or taller in the regular rotation, the ridiculous athletic ability of the 6-5 Tokoto and a player-of-the-year type season from sophomore point guard Marcus Paige, UNC quickly is becoming the team no one wants to see in his bracket come Selection Sunday.

Or as Wake Forest coach Jeff Bzdelik said of Paige after watching the Heels hammer his Demon Deacons 105-72 last month, "Every really good team has a really good player, and you can't win at any level unless you have great guards. Marcus Paige is certainly a very, very good guard."

He was so good in last week's overtime win at North Carolina State that he scored 31 of his career-high 35 points in the second half. He pumped in 16 of his 20 points against Florida State in the second frame. He scored all 13 of his points against Duke in the second half.

"He knows in late-game situations, or any type of situation, he knows when to take over," teammate Leslie McDonald said of Paige after the N.C. State win. "That's the amazing thing about him: He's a point guard who can take over games."

Yet he's far from the only Tar Heel who can erupt when needed. Junior forward James Michael McAdoo was good enough as a freshman to be considered an NBA lottery pick. Two years later he's averaging 14.2 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.3 steals.

McDonald, a senior who was suspended for much of the nonconference schedule concerning NCAA issues, is averaging 11 points and taking some heat off Paige from the perimeter. Forward Brice Johnson averages 10.1 points and 6.2 rebounds. Tokoto, UNC's best athlete, scores 9.4 a game, many coming on highlight reel dunks.

Yet it also took half the season for the Tar Heels to come together, Williams painfully observing after their 0-3 league start, "I do feel mentally worse than I've ever felt as a head coach. Right now, I'm not doing a very good job with this basketball team."

One loss and 12 wins later, North Carolina is starting to return a smile to its coach's face.

"You have to understand that you're going to go through a season and sometimes you're going to play really well," Williams said after Saturday's sloppy 60-56 win at Virginia Tech. "But to have a great year, you've got to win a lot of games ugly ... and I like winning."

There is a perception that UNC hasn't won much since earning its fifth NCAA title in 2009. Yet the school has advanced to two regional finals since then, as well as reaching last year's ACC tourney final.

Now the Heels are once more on one of those rolls that often guides a team to the Final Four, which Williams has reached seven times previously as the head coach of Kansas or UNC.

"I'm not going to say we're a finished product, because we've got games left," Paige said last week. "But, man, we're playing really well right now and we're winning games in a lot of different ways."

If they can avoid losing any more games in the one way that's tormented them all year, those frustrating 15 feet between the foul line and the backboard, they just might win NCAA title No. 6.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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