The North Carolina Tar Heels play Northern Kentucky Friday, and while an easy victory should be slated a lot will be learned from how the team will look come conference play by how the last two non-conference games play out.
Coach Roy Williams has had to do quite a bit of coaching having had to build on a lineup he did not think he would use to start the season. Leslie McDonald and P.J. Hairston were both ineligible at beginning of season. McDonald has since returned and Hairston will not come back to play. While it is not the entire roster the team envisioned, at least now it is the roster the Tar Heels will have the rest of the season.
The Heels have been inconsistent after picking up major victories over three ranked teams and falling to three unranked teams. This kind of up-and-down non-conference play has rarely given insight to what the Tar Heels really are. Sometimes, like in the triumphs over Louisville and Michigan State, they have looked like an unstoppable scoring bunch. In the Kentucky game, the defense shut down Julius Randle.
However, even in the upsets — and especially in the losses to Belmont, UAB and Texas — free throw shooting has been the team’s bugaboo. On the season, North Carolina is only shooting 61 percent from the stripe. Marcus Paige is shooting 92 percent, but there is no one else shooting well on the line.
This is a major concern because many ACC games will come down to the final minutes. The remaining two non-conference games could make it easier on the shooter because the high-stress situations should be minimal. Maybe relaxation will help James Michael McAdoo find his stroke on the freebies. If McAdoo can increase his free throw shooting by 10 percent, that could provide a major boost to the team. Not only will it add points, but it will make it much harder for opposing teams to foul McAdoo down the stretch.
North Carolina will should not be challenged these next two games, but maybe a better touch at the line will develop and the Tar Heels will turn into a much more dominant team than they already are.