The North Carolina basketball team exited the month of November with more reasons to feel good than bad.
The Tar Heels went 7-1 in the opening month of this season and collected wins over Chattanooga, Oklahoma State and Wisconsin. Each of their victories came by at least 15 points, and their three performances on the way to taking home the Maui Invitational crown had some analysts declaring them the best team in the land.
While North Carolina’s play has been a pleasant surprise to its fans in powder blue, this season’s group isn’t without its flaws. Those flaws were on display throughout Wednesday’s 76-67 loss at Indiana.
A couple issues from the not-too-distant past crept back to plague UNC against the Hoosiers. One of those was three-point shooting.
The Heels have been better beyond the arc during Roy Williams’ 14th season as the program’s head coach, shooting 39.2 percent from long range before Wednesday’s game. They had their worst outing to date against Indiana, though, hitting only 28.6 percent of their three-point attempts.
The bigger concern was UNC’s inability to sink its free throws. Carolina shot 13-of-22 from the foul line, with several of the misses coming on the front end of one-and-one opportunities. That undeniably made a difference in a close contest in which the Tar Heels cut the deficit to as little as four points late in the second half.
UNC can survive occasional off nights from deep; just last season, the team played for a national championship while relying very little on the three-ball. It helps when the trifectas drop, but high-percentage opportunities are always the first option.
The Tar Heels’ success from the charity stripe, however, could easily make the difference between wins and losses throughout their rigorous slate.
North Carolina was among the worst in the nation in free-throw percentage in 2013-’14, hitting only 62.5 percent from the line. It cost the Heels that season in losses to Belmont (45.8%), UAB (36.4%), Texas (51.1%), Wake Forest (63.6%), Miami (60%), Pittsburgh (65.6%) and Iowa State (60%) — all games in which they fell short by six or fewer points. Reversing just three of those outcomes makes the difference between 24-10 and 27-7.
If this current team expects to make a return trip to the Final Four, it can’t slip back into those old ways this winter. The rest of the non-conference schedule is no cakewalk, with Kentucky, Northern Iowa and Monmouth still on the docket. Then comes ACC play, when UNC will face Duke, N.C. State, Virginia and Pitt twice each.
The contests against Wisconsin and Indiana showed the Tar Heels won’t always be able to run at their preferred pace; they mustered only two fast-break points on Wednesday. Similar challenges could emerge against UVA, Clemson and Georgia Tech. This Indiana game was instructive in that it showed how hard it can be to create fast-break chances in hostile environments on the road.
When UNC finds itself in those situations, knocking down shots will be a must — that includes attempts from three-point range and the free-throw line. Wednesday showed what can happen to the Heels when the ball doesn’t go in the basket.