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UNC notes: More free throws needed

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- North Carolina coach Roy Williams doesn’t mind that his 21st-ranked Tar Heels are averaging 6 1/2 more 3-point attempts per game than last season. With the strength and experience of the team on the wings, he expected it.

But he’d also like to see another type of shot go up more often: free throws.

UNC is averaging only 15.7 foul shot attempts per game, roughly nine fewer attempts per game than last season. It’s a sharp decline for a team that is used to making more free throws than its opponents even attempt.

The biggest difference: younger, less experienced big guys. Forwards Tyler Zeller, John Henson and Harrison Barnes led the Tar Heels in free throw attempts last season, and now they’re all rookies in the NBA. That puts the onus on this year’s experienced wings -- Dexter Strickland (14 for 26 on free throws this season), Reggie Bullock (9 for 11), Leslie McDonald (8 for 12) and P.J. Hairston (15 for 18) -- to push their team to the line more often, one way or another.

“I don’t mind … [more] 3-pointers a game, but I would like to get to the foul line more, and that comes from getting the ball inside, by pass or dribble,’’ Williams said Thursday.

"Everybody acts like I just want them to throw it to the big guy, but Ty Lawson got to the foul line a lot just by driving the ball to the basket. And Marcus [Paige, UNC’s starting point guard] hasn’t gotten that comfortable with it yet; he’s played seven or eight games, and he’s shot one free throw, and that’s just not typical. We’ve got to get the ball to the basket by dribble or pass."

Plus, make shots when they do get to the line. The Tar Heels are making only 61.7 percent of their free throws, worst in the ACC.

GETTING DEFENSIVE: Freshman forward Brice Johnson has been impressing plenty of people with his offensive skills. But Williams said the forward has “a long way” to go on defense.

“He said it himself the other day: He played zone in high school,’’ Williams said. “It’s two things: You have to learn all the principles, which is really hard, it takes a long time -- and then it becomes second nature and you say, why did it take me so long to learn?

“And then the other thing … he’s got to get his intensity level way higher than it is, and then maintain it. We showed one play in one game; it might have been the Indiana game. And I said, ‘How did you feel you you watched that?’ And he said: ‘Embarrassed.’ Because you don’t know that [the intensity level was low], you see it on tape, and it helps you understand it.

"But it’s getting better. He’s not getting better as fast as I want him to, or I’m sure as fast as he wants to. But he’s trying, and trying to get better, and I’ll take that."

LEARNING EASY: Even with the blowout nature of the outcomes, Williams said his team did learn some things from its wins against Mississippi State (95-49), Chaminade (112-70) and East Tennessee State (78-55). With so many young players, frankly, the Tar Heels can’t help but learn every game.

“Now, I don’t know if we’d learn anything if we had last year’s team, because we were so experienced and so talented,’’ he said. “But when you’re inexperienced and hoping that the talent will show up at some point, I think you gain a great deal by getting them out in front of someone else.

“...You do put them in different scenarios than you have in practice, so that helps you. You put them in front of a crowd, that does help you. They’re trying to run things that the other team does not know what they’re doing, like in practice. So that does help you.”

When the Tar Heels first committed to their nonconference schedule, they had no idea they’d be playing a Mississippi State team that had only six scholarship players come game time, an ETSU squad that had dismissed two starters and had an injured starting point guard at tip-off; or they’d end up facing Division II Chaminade in the Maui Invitational.

But Williams defended his mix of scheduling tough matchups with easier ones, saying players need a balance of challenges and confidence-boosters, and of differing opponent styles.

“You guys have heard me say it before: Everybody wants you to play the Oklahoma City Thunder, and then the Celtics, and then the Lakers, things like that,’’ he said. “But you can’t; you’ve got to get your kids some confidence.”