Hairston emerges from Bullock's shadow
Posted December 29, 2012
Heading into North Carolina's 79-73 win Saturday afternoon over UNLV, North Carolina found themselves in a very unfamiliar position; needing to prove to themselves -- let alone the rest of the college basketball watching world -- that they weren't the paper tiger they'd proven to be so far this year. Prior to the match-up with the Rebels, Carolina had not only lost all three games against high-caliber competition, but they'd been largely dismantled in each case. Butler, Indiana and Texas all easily outclassed the Tar Heels, who are still -- understandably -- trying to figure out who they are and how they're supposed to play as we approach the conference schedule.
Add to the sense of today's desperation the fact that Carolina was without Reggie Bullock, their second-leading scorer and top wing defender and you realize that the quality of the opponent was only part of the Tar Heels' dilemma. Bullock's absence, due to a concussion suffered during Thursday night's practice, opened the door for someone else to step through, and that person was P.J. Hairston.
You all know Hairston's rep; he's a gunner, a chucker, heck, there's even the well-known, twitter hashtag, #PJbeshootin that's been around the ACC as long as Hairston has. In fact, even Roy Williams knows about it. He told us at the conference's basketball media day that they needed to turn "pj be shooting" to "pj be makin". But, beyond the offense, it was time for Hairston to bring the rest of his game along. Do you want to be a gunner, or do you want to be a factor? At least today, when his team needed him to do more than score, Hairston was the latter.
Yes, Dexter Strickland was Carolina's leading scorer (16 points and just 1 turnover in 33 minutes). Yes, it was James Michael McAdoo who scored six of his 13 points in a stretch immediately following UNLV claiming a 49-48 lead. And yes, you can't overlook the emotional lift provided early by the defensive work of Desmond Hubert (3 blocked shots and a steal in 20 minutes). But, from start to finish on this final Saturday of 2012, in a game that his team absolutely had to have, against a foe that would give Roy Williams a gauge by which to measure his team as it readies for conference play, P.J. Hairston stepped into the limelight and delivered.
Hairston's box score appears modest. His 15 points were important, but not nearly as much so as the fact that he stayed under control, dare I say efficient. Hairston made two of his five three point attempts and half of his 10 shots overall. For a player who's known for his offensive spark off the bench, those are excellent numbers. But, it's the other end of the floor where Hairston had the larger impact. Hairston showed an awareness defensively that we'd only seen in flashes. There were the four steals that we can see, but there were at least as many other plays, deflections, rotations, etc., that don't show up in the box score. P.J. even took a charge today, covering for a teammate's mistake in that critical stretch of the game as the Tar Heels saw their comfortable lead morph into a competitive situation.
The reality of the situation is that North Carolina isn't ever going to be a great team this year. There are too many obvious deficiencies on both ends of the court for them to achieve greatness. But, they can be very good if they take care of the little things. If they continue to play hard on the defensive end -- as they did today with a dozen steals as a team. If they take better care of the ball -- as they did today with just a dozen turnovers. If they can just rebound the ball a little bit better -- which they didn't exactly do today, ending up a -5 in the rebounding department.
This wasn't a masterpiece. But, it was North Carolina's best game of the year -- their most complete game of the year -- against the type of opponent you're likely to see in the NCAA Tournament. The reality was, and to a certain extent still is, that without a win on this court today, the Tar Heels were anything but a sure-fire NCAA tournament club. As it is, there's still a lot of room to improve.
In a season in which so much has been put on the shoulders of forward James Michael McAdoo, who is tasting life as a marked man for the first time, he and the absent Reggie Bullock have needed another reliable player. They may have just found him today. P.J. Hairston became a factor today. Now, can he do it again, and again, and again.
That's what real players do. Today, P.J Hairston looked the part of a real player.