There's always that one obvious gift that people want for Christmas. Whether it's an iPad for Dad, diamond earrings for Mom or Tickle-Me Elmo for the little one, Santa knows that it's a must for his oversized bag.
For the Tar Heels, it's free throw shooting.
North Carolina is connecting on a dreadful 63.1 percent from the charity stripe, a mark that puts them on par with Alcorn State at 280th nationally. Neither starter in UNC's backcourt is shooting above 64.0 percent and John Henson is firing at a 49.0 percent rate, nearing eight percentage points below his field goal mark.
The Tar Heels' top free throw shooter, and lone player knocking down over 79 percent, is backup guard P.J. Hairston (84.2).
Roy Williams likened free throw shooting to putting on Monday night, suggesting that too much emphasis adds stress and can make the situation worse.
"I think the more you practice, the more relaxed you feel and the more reps you put up," sophomore forward Harrison Barnes said on Tuesday. "We're all good free throw shooters in practice, but we just have to translate that over to games."
Barnes nearly found himself on the naughty list with a not-so-subtle, albeit humorous, dig at rookie P.J. Hairston.
"For example, P.J., one game he goes 9-for-10, and then today in practice he goes 0-for-3 and we all had to run for that," Barnes said.
Regardless, there will likely come a time this season when North Carolina will need every point at its disposal. Williams knows that fact all too well – his '02-03 Kansas team missed 18 free throws in the national championship and lost to Syracuse by three points.
Upgraded Models Needed
Dexter Strickland only paused for a split-second when asked on Tuesday about the category where North Carolina has the most room to improve in.
Williams has been persistent in telling reporters since the offseason that defensive success was critical for this team to realize its goals of reaching New Orleans in early April. UNC opened the season strong in that regard, holding its opponents to 33.9 percent shooting (59-of-174) through the first five halves of play.
Since that time, that field goal percentage defense mark has risen to 39.5 percent (251-635), and while respectable, abhorrent shooting displays by Evansville and Nicholls – a combined 39-of-136 – helped keep that statistic down.
In UNC's two losses, UNLV and Kentucky combined to knock down 50.8 percent of their shots in the second half.
Strickland pointed to needed improvement in off-the-ball defense as well as stopping dribble penetration as the keys areas of focus.
"Letting the guards drive down the middle and making John or ‘Z' rotate and leaving their guys wide open," Strickland said. "I think we should do a better job guarding the ball from that initial position. I think we're doing an alright job, but we can do better, though."
North Carolina ranked 57th nationally in field goal percentage defense (39.0) and 89th in 3-point field goal percentage defense (31.0) prior to the victory over Nicholls, as the NCAA only updates its stats once a week. UNC is currently holding its opponents to 38.3 percent shooting, including a 29.4 percent mark from long range.
Roy Williams-coached teams are consistently ranked in the top-20 nationally in rebounding margin, but North Carolina entered Monday night's contest with a plus-6.1 rebounding margin, good for 47th nationally. Granted, UNC's plus-37 mark against Nicholls will significantly improve that ranking, but the Tar Heels' inconsistency on the boards needs to be rectified prior to the start of ACC play.
This year's Tar Heel edition now owns the three best rebounding performances during Williams's tenure in Chapel Hill with three games of 62 rebounds or more, but this group has also been outrebounded five times.
It's understandable to be outrebounded by Michigan State or Kentucky, but not South Carolina or Long Beach State.
"A lot of it is effort," Barnes said. "[On Monday], we all made a conscious effort because the coaches were definitely stressing it on us in practice to rebound. John and ‘Z' coming up with 11, Reggie coming up with 10, I think I had eight and a few others chipped in. That kind of effort is going to help us so much more in terms of getting second-chance opportunities and also not giving them second-chance opportunities."
Items Already Checked Off the List
Point Guard Production
Truth be told, North Carolina secured this gift during the post-Christmas bonanza in late January. Standing 6-foot-4 and weighing 195 pounds, Kendall Marshall wouldn't fit in many shipping boxes, but he's proven to be the gift that keeps on giving.
The sophomore point guard has dished out 122 assists on the season – tops in the country – against just 30 turnovers, good for a 4.1 A/E ratio. His career 2.86 assist-turnover mark ranks first in school history and second in ACC history behind N.C. State's Sidney Lowe (2.94).
A Tar Heel has posted 14 or more assists 15 times in school history and Marshall is responsible for six of those occasions, including three games of 15 or more assists in the last six weeks.
But despite those ridiculous statistics, his teammates are not surprised with Marshall's play.
"Not me, probably you guys, because I've been playing with Kendall since I was seven-years-old," Strickland said. "Even at that age, he was still making crazy passes. But he's playing great. He's playing awesome. Just his knowledge of the game, knowing where everybody wants the ball is very big for us."
Most importantly, UNC is 13-0 when Marshall has at least nine assists.
If there was a primary concern heading into the 2011-12 season, it was if North Carolina could get enough offensive firepower from the perimeter with Leslie McDonald sidelined with an ankle injury.
Hairston and fellow reserve Reggie Bullock have alleviated that concern with solid and mostly consistent shooting efforts through the first 12 games of the season.
Bullock ranks fourth on the team in scoring with 9.2 points per outing, thanks in large part to a 42.1 percent shooting percentage from 3-point territory (24-of-57). Hairston is fifth in scoring (8.3 ppg) and is connecting on 38.8 percent of his treys (19-of-49). That duo is the primary reason that UNC ranks in the top-20 nationally in 3-point field goal percentage (39.0).
"They're doing a great job," Strickland said. "Reggie last night was 10 and 10. P.J. coming off the bench – his presence on the court is really big for us. It actually takes pressure off me and Kendall and Harrison."