Hairston could be difference between top seed, .500 finish for Tar Heels
Posted August 2, 2013
Chapel Hill, N.C. — When North Carolina basketball coach Roy Williams put embarrassing junior forward P.J. Hairston on indefinite suspension earlier this week, it was the strongest indication yet that the Tar Heels 2013-14 season could be as unpredictable as Hairston’s eventful summer.
The 6-foot-5, 220-pounder from Greensboro has been in and out of trouble since May but was the offensive leader on last season’s 25-11 (12-6 ACC) team averaging 14.6 points and converting a team-high 89 three-point shots.
Although the details of Hairston’s relationship with Durham resident Haydn (Fats) Thomas haven’t yet been clarified, there seem to be three distinct end-game possibilities for his availability to the team in the coming season. Here’s the breakdown:
SCENARIO 1: Hairston plays the entire season
This is the least likely but obviously the most optimal outcome in terms of wins and losses.
In a likely lineup with James Michael McAdoo, Marcus Paige, Leslie McDonald and Brice Johnson – plus five or six additional contributors – Hairston and the Tar Heels would be a national top 10 team and probably the ACC’s best.
By far, Duke’s the popular pick. But don’t forget the Blue Devils lost their three top scorers (Mason Plumlee, Seth Curry, Ryan Kelly) and will have to forge a new offense, not to mention a new chemistry, around transfer Rodney Hood, freshman Jabari Parker and returnee Andre Dawkins.
If the Heels could have Hairston for the entire run, they would be my preseason league favorite over Duke, Syracuse and Notre Dame and a near lock for a No. 1 NCAA regional seed.
SCENARIO 2: Hairston is suspended for 10-14 games
This would be a situation marginally similar to last season, when Hairston really didn’t emerge as a consistent force until the final 15 or so games.
But unlike a year ago, there would be no Reggie Bullock around to shore up the perimeter offense unless McDonald (36 percent on 3s last season) surfaces as a first-team all-conference candidate.
If Hairston were to sit out 10 games, he’d be back in time for the entire ACC schedule but wouldn’t play against Louisville (Nov. 24), Michigan State (Dec. 4), Kentucky (Dec. 14), Texas (Dec. 18) and Davidson (Dec. 21).
But should a suspension extend to 14 games – or more – he would start to miss conference play. The impact of a 10-14 game penalty would likely do a great deal of harm to the team’s NCAA fate and certainly its seeding.
Williams would still have a lot of options with Johnson, J.P. Tokoto, Joel James, Jackson Simmons and Desmond Hubert, in addition to newcomers Nate Britt, Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks.
But with Hairston sitting for such a prolonged period, there would be a chemistry adjustment upon his return and the 25-win total of last season virtually impossible to match.
A reasonable projection would be an 11-7 ACC record and 20-10 overall.
SCENARIO 3: Hairston doesn’t play in 2013-14
It is very possible that Williams' patience has reached an end and Hairston won't see the court at all this season.
At best, Hairston has made enough irrational decisions to become an ongoing problem for the school and the program. At worst, he’s a perpetual dumpster arsonist whose potential for mayhem is limitless in and outside the locker room.
Clearly, the Tar Heels could be a second-division ACC team without his perimeter shooting and offensive rebounding abilities.
On the other hand, Williams eventually will return the Heels to an inside-oriented offensive attack, and the loss of Hairston for the entire season would jump-start that process.
Hairston’s sudden emergence as a dynamic scorer late last season lifted the team but it also blurred the mural.
UNC's strong finish – 6-1 to end the regular season – overshadowed the fact that Heels failed to score 70 or more points 10 times, were held to 53 by Duke in the final regular-season game and needed overtime to defeat hapless Virginia Tech, 72-60, in Chapel Hill.
Why? There was no inside scoring punch, which has been the program’s passport to big winning for the past half century.
Like all teams, UNC needs perimeter shooters, but Williams understands better than anyone that offenses function best when they operate on a inside-first foundation.
Without Hairston for an entire season, the Heels would have the look of a 9-9 ACC, 18-12 overall team but the low-post rebuilding process could start one season ahead of schedule.