North Carolina Tar Heels: Desmond Hubert

Hubert blossoming into defensive role

February, 26, 2014
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North Carolina coach Roy Williams, explaining how fast junior forward Desmond Hubert can get from basket to basket in transition, caught everyone in the interview room off guard with his analogy.

“I mean, he’s got Jadeveon Clowney kind of speed for a big dude,” Williams said.

Think Hubert can knock the helmet off a running back, too? Probably not, but Hubert is developing his own signature play, just like the South Carolina defensive end. He doesn’t score often -- Hubert only has six made baskets the entire season -- but when he has lately, it’s been on dunk put-backs.

[+] EnlargeDesmond Hubert, Prince Ibeh
Grant Halverson/Getty ImagesJunior forward Desmond Hubert is earning more playing time with his defense.
He did it against Duke and Florida State and nearly pulled it off in the first half against Pittsburgh, too. (Four of his six baskets this season are dunks.)

Let’s be clear: There’s no reason to make Hubert out to be more than what he is. Carolina won’t win or lose based on how much he scores. But he is quickly becoming a key reserve in the frontcourt.

When Brice Johnson got into foul trouble against Duke, Hubert played a season-high 11 minutes and grabbed a season-best five rebounds. With Kennedy Meeks nursing an injured knee and ankle heading into Wednesday night’s game against NC State, Hubert could again get more playing time.

“He’s been important to us, but perhaps the last couple of games he’s realized it even more,” Williams said. “Everybody wants to play 50 minutes in a 40-minute game. I’ve been trying to sell everybody on when you’re in there, do the best that you can do and you’re important to us. In the Duke game, I thought Desmond was really important to us.”

Hubert only plays 5.5 minutes per game on the season, but in the past three games he’s almost doubled that average. Williams has called Hubert the best defensive post player the Heels have. Meeks takes it one step further.

“I always tell Desmond that he’s the best defensive player I’ve ever faced from any team,” Meeks said. “His defense is insane.”

Hubert is especially effective at defending ball screens, which at times has been a major weakness for Carolina.

The most telling aspect of Hubert’s development is that his teammates call him dependable. They trust what he’s going to give on the court, and he never attempts to do more than he's capable of doing.

“Desmond has always been an uplifting guy. He’s always working hard in practice and when his name is called on, he produces,” senior Leslie McDonald said. “... There’s never been a time I’ve never heard from him getting disappointed with his playing time. He does whatever he can, and I’m pretty sure that’s the same for all our teammates. When we get a chance to get in the game, we want to produce.”

Thought of the week: Real Heels stand up

February, 3, 2014
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The real Tar Heels finally have been revealed.

It is a flawed team, but that’s OK; which team in college basketball isn’t? North Carolina has accepted shortcomings and knows it has to overcome them through effort. It is a team that can depend on junior forward James Michael McAdoo for energy and leadership, even if he still struggles from the free-throw line. It is a team that needs sophomore guard Marcus Paige to lose his humility and play like the best offensive threat, even though that's not in his nature.

For half the season, Carolina's up-and-down pattern of big wins and bad losses had everyone puzzled. The first nine games were especially confusing, too. Back then, there was still a vision of the team that would emerge that would include P.J. Hairston.

Even after the school opted not to seek reinstatement for Hairston and Leslie McDonald returned, the Heels had trouble finding their identity. They’ve got it now.

[+] EnlargeJ.P. Tokoto
AP Photo/Gerry BroomeJ.P. Tokoto, James Michael McAdoo and the Tar Heels seem to have finally forged an identity.
“It does say a great deal about the character of the kids we have that they didn’t get down when it was 0-3 (in the ACC) and 1-4,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “They didn’t start pointing fingers at anybody else. They accepted the coaching that we were trying to do and they are getting better.”

To be clear, Carolina’s three-game winning streak has come against teams it was supposed to beat in Clemson, Georgia Tech and NC State. But there’s also no denying, being in the league cellar stripped the Heels of their cool. They’ve shown more grit and hustle in the past three games than they had in any other three-game stretch this season.

Carolina hasn’t won four games in a row this season. The Heels host Maryland on Tuesday and a victory would lift UNC above .500 in league play for the first time all season.

“I really believe we’re getting better as a team,” Williams said. “I told them that this week that I think we’re really close to really becoming a good basketball team, but we’ve got to take some more steps and got to maintain that intensity level for a longer period of time.”

Williams has said he doesn’t intentionally tighten his rotation during the course of the season. But a pattern is starting to show itself.

Carolina going forward will have freshman center Kennedy Meeks logging more time in the middle. He has had only four games this season when he played more than 20 minutes, and three of those came in the past four games.

That means, barring foul trouble or injuries, scaling back opportunities for Joel James, Jackson Simmons and Desmond Hubert.

Expect more from McDonald, the lone scholarship senior on the roster, moving forward. He has averaged more than 30 minutes in the past three games and responded with a season-high 20 points against the Wolfpack on Saturday.

By default, that means a little less time for freshman guard Nate Britt in the backcourt and more time for Paige at point guard.

The Heels won’t likely run the table in the regular season. But at least now their failures won’t be from a lack of urgency or from players still feeling out their roles. They know who they are. And they're finally playing like it.

Heels sluggish in win over Norse

December, 27, 2013
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North Carolina coach Roy Williams blamed an extended break for his team's sluggish start in a 75-60 win over Northern Kentucky at the Dean Smith Center on Friday. Williams gave his team Sunday through Wednesday off for Christmas, and the Tar Heels didn't practice until Thursday night.

"I probably gave them too much time," Williams said. "We were not sharp, to say the least, and that was a huge part of the game. At the same time, I didn't think we had the intensity and concentration level that we needed to have."

The Heels finished with 14 turnovers, several of the unforced variety, such as when Marcus Paige passed up an open 3-pointer to dish to James Michael McAdoo. The problem was McAdoo was expecting Paige to shoot, and the ball sailed out of bounds.

[+] EnlargeIsaiah Hicks, Anthony Monaco
Robert Willett/Raleigh News & Observer/MCTFreshman Isaiah Hicks asserted himself Friday night with four points, three rebounds and three blocks.
Williams could tolerate those mistakes, but he said, "I was ticked off" by his team's first-half defense. It led Williams to start a second-half unit of Luke Davis, Isaiah Hicks, Jackson Simmons, Desmond Hubert and Paige.

"My staff did a great job, because what I wanted to do was stay out at halftime and run sprints the entire friggin' half," Williams said. "They thought it was not the right thing to do, but, god, I wanted to do that so badly. I will never ask them again, because I'm going to do that one of these days. I know by god we'll make 'SportsCenter' then."

The second-half starting five did set the tone for the Heels defensively. The group held the Norse scoreless for three-plus minutes to start the half on 0-for-5 shooting, including a shot-clock violation.

"I thought they gave us a tremendous lift defensively," Williams said. "They did some really good things for us that sort of turned it around."

Other game observations:

• Carolina had been outscored in points in the paint only in losses to UAB and Texas -- until the undersized Norse did it. NKU starting center Jalen Billups stands only 6-foot-6, but the Norse attacked the rim and the Tar Heels did not. UNC lost that battle 28-26, with the Norse attempting seven more shots in the paint.

"We had a tremendous size advantage, and one of our goals was to attack the basket, and we didn't get a single, low post-up or taking the ball to the basket the entire first half," Williams said.

• Freshman forward Isaiah Hicks played arguably his best game to date. It started with his defensive effort on NKU's Tyler White, who had 11 points in the first half. Hicks' long arms deterred White from getting any good looks. Hicks finished with four points and three rebounds.

"I guess I showed my presence more," Hicks said.

• Carolina recorded the second-most blocks in school history with 15. It was the most since recording the same number on March 8, 2008, against Duke. That included career highs from Brice Johnson and Hicks with three each.

• P.J. Hairston was not on the bench for the first time this season at a Carolina home game. The junior guard missed the first nine games before the school announced it would not petition the NCAA to have his eligibility reinstated. He was present on the bench for the Davidson game last Saturday, despite the news. Asked if he would be back, Williams said he didn't know.

"I'm trying to coach the guys I have; I have no idea," Williams said. "He's not on our team. I love him to death, but he's not on our team."

Johnson makes case for center

November, 21, 2013
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North Carolina coach Roy Williams wondered aloud throughout the preseason about who among sophomore Joel James, freshman Kennedy Meeks and junior Desmond Hubert would solidify the center position.

[+] EnlargeBrice Johnson
Grant Halverson/Getty ImagesBrice Johnson has given North Carolina a boost at center.
Through the Tar Heels' first few games, the answer has actually been forward Brice Johnson. He may continue to be their best option while James and Meeks slowly grow into the position.

Both James and Meeks have steadily shown signs of development. James has started every game and averaged 4.0 points and 4.3 rebounds. Meeks’ numbers are slightly better off the bench with 6.7 points and 5.7 rebounds.

But it’s telling that in games against Holy Cross and Belmont, Williams went with Johnson at center for the deciding minutes. Alongside James Michael McAdoo at power forward, that has been the frontcourt tandem which has given the Heels an offensive boost whenever Williams has used them.

It’s no coincidence that Johnson and McAdoo happen to be UNC's most-experienced and skilled frontcourt players.

“It was effective last year when I did it for the first half of the season,” Johnson said. “Me and James Michael know how to play with each other. We know where to be at the right time or what pass to throw to each other. So that’s what makes that more effective for us.”

Just how effective? Johnson’s 66.7 shooting percent from the field leads the team among players with more than five attempts. He is the team’s third double-figures scorer with a 12.0 average despite not starting a game. (His 6.3 rebounds also ranked third on the team despite averaging just 19.0 minutes per game.)

Most importantly, Johnson hasn’t been a defensive liability in those games. In fact, Williams said he used Johnson against the Bruins because James and Meeks had trouble playing against smaller frontcourts that liked to move to the perimeter.

Johnson’s slight frame at 6-foot-9, 210 pounds makes it tough for him to defend a physical center. But most of the Heels’ nonconference slate is littered with teams that don’t play a true center.

That trend will continue against Richmond on Saturday and possibly Louisville on Sunday.

The Spiders have a smaller frontcourt rotation of Derrick Williams, who is listed as 6-foot-6, 270 pounds, Terry Allen, 6-foot-8, 235; Alonzo Nelson-Ododa, 6-foot-9, 210, and Deion Taylor, who is 6-foot-7, 200.

The trick for Williams in the rest of the nonconference schedule -- as long as P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald are still sidelined -- will be balancing the need to develop James and Meeks and actually playing his best at the 5. At this point in the season, there’s no question Johnson is that option.

2014 class could be right piece

November, 14, 2013
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Roy Williams won two championships in Chapel Hill thanks in large part to three standout recruiting classes. On paper, he just landed a fourth on Wednesday.

Williams delivered one of the nation’s best recruiting classes and gave a comment on each:

Theo Pinson, a 6-foot-8 wing, is ranked eighth in the ESPN 100: “He can do almost everything on the court and do it well. He can handle the ball, pass, defend and he has tremendous savvy.

[+] EnlargeJustin Jackson
Chris Williams/Icon SMI2014 UNC signee Justin Jackson is the nation's top-ranked small forward.
Justin Jackson, a 6-foot-6 wing is ranked 13th: “He’s 6-8 with perimeter skills. He performed well last summer against tough competition, including at USA Basketball events.”

Joel Berry, a 6-foot-1 point guard, ranked 15th: “He is a true quarterback on the floor, but he has the ability to score as well.”

It matches the 2010 class of Harrison Barnes, Reggie Bullock and Kendall Marshall for the highest average ranking. But the formula for winning titles doesn’t come with a talented class alone.

Williams has proven when he stacks classes the right way, Carolina contends for the title.

As you recall, Matt Doherty recruited the classes who proved to be the cornerstones of the 2005 national championship team. That included the 2002 class that featured Sean May, Rashad McCants and Raymond Felton.

Marvin Williams, from the class of 2004, proved to be a key addition to that team and was in Roy Williams’ first full recruiting class in Chapel Hill.

The starters for the 2009 title team came from portions of the 2005 (Tyler Hansbrough, Danny Green) and 2006 (Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington, Deon Thompson) classes.

The team built to win in 2012 had key starters from three classes in Tyler Zeller (2008), John Henson and Dexter Strickland (2009) and Marshall and Barnes (2010).

Even if James Michael McAdoo and P.J. Hairston are not on next year’s squad, the Heels will still have a nice blend of old and new talents from three straight classes. That once again could be the formula for a serious Final Four contender.

Pinson and Jackson in particular will give Carolina the depth and athleticism on the wings that it has lacked. Berry will team with Marcus Paige and Nate Britt to form one of the fastest back courts Williams has had at UNC.

UNC recruiting classes under Roy Williams

2004
J.R. Smith, SF
Marvin Williams, PF
Quentin Thomas, PG

2005
Tyler Hansbrough, PF
Danny Green, SG
Bobby Frasor, SG
Marcus Ginyard, PG
Michael Copeland, F

2006
Wayne Ellington, G
Ty Lawson, PG
Brandon Wright, PF
Deon Thompson, PF
Alex Stepheson, PF
Will Graves, SF

2007
None

2008
Ed Davis, PF
Tyler Zeller, C
Larry Drew, PG
Justin Watts, SG

2009
John Henson, PF
Dexter Strickland, SG
Leslie McDonald, SG
David Wear, PF
Travis Wear, PF

2010
Harrison Barnes, SF
Regge Bullock, SG
Kendall Marshall, PG

2011
James Michael McAdoo, PF
P.J. Hairson, SF
Desmond Hubert, C
Jackson Simmons, PF
Stillman White, PG

2012
Marcus Paige, PG
Joel James, C
Brice Johnson, PF
J.P. Tokoto, SF

2013
Isaiah Hicks, PF
Kennedy Meeks, C
Nate Britt, PG

2014
Theo Pinson, SF
Justin Jackson, SF
Joel Berry, PG

Heels run through lineups, UNC Pembroke

November, 1, 2013
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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Talk about a rotation.

No. 12 North Carolina dizzied itself with at least 13 different lineup combinations in its 82-63 exhibition win over UNC Pembroke tonight before 10,458 at the Dean E. Smith Center. And that was before the bench emptied with reserves to close out the game.

[+] EnlargeMichael McAdoo
AP Photo/Gerry BroomeJames Michael McAdoo played exclusively at small forward Friday against UNC Pembroke.
Thing is, the lineup carousel could continue heading into the season opener next Friday against Oakland. Carolina is still waiting for the NCAA to weigh in on disciplinary action for P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald and held them out of tonight’s game. J.P. Tokoto, who played in two unsanctioned summer league games, also sat out, but will return for the opener.

UNC coach Roy Williams said he was “not close to a set lineup” due to the uncertainty, which could make strange lineup combinations the norm until further notice.

“Well, that’s a big part of it because we don’t know who we’ll have back yet, there’s no update on that,” Williams said.

In some years, the lineup of Nate Britt, Luke Davis, Isaiah Hicks, Jackson Simmons and Kennedy Meeks would have certainly been viewed as the Blue team. Against the Braves that was a combination that took the floor not even halfway through the first half. Williams said Hicks played small forward even though he had never practiced at the position.

Forward James Michael McAdoo has practiced playing small forward, but didn't anticipate having to spend the entire game at the position. Williams said he posted impressive numbers with 19 points, 10 rebounds and three assists -- until he looked at turnovers.

McAdoo, who had the dubious distinction of leading the team in turnovers last season, had five against the smaller, quicker lineup Pembroke had on the floor.

“A lot of my turnovers were just dumb trying to dribble between two people a couple of times I tried to pass the ball in close when I should have just shot the ball," McAdoo said. "(I’m) just trying to cut down on little stuff like that that’s easily fixed.”

With Williams forced to use combinations that might not be seen again, the Tar Heels lacked chemistry for some stretches of the game. After holding as much as a 24-point lead in the first half, they allowed the Braves to cut it to 59-53 with 8:53 left in the game.

That was partly due to 23 turnovers -- and Pembroke didn’t use its full court press like it did against N.C. State on Tuesday.

“I just think we had some sloppy possessions overall as a team -- it was like the ball was greased up before the game or something,” said sophomore Marcus Paige, who had five turnovers.

Paige, like McAdoo, essentially didn’t play his normal position the entire game. He played shooting guard, with either with Britt or Davis handling the ball.

Paige said he had to keep reminding himself not to be a stand-still shooter when playing off the ball.

“I have a tendency to stand on the wing and not be active, not screen, and just sit and wait for the ball,” Paige said. “I’m still getting used to being active as a 2 rather than just, you know, being the 2.”

There’s a lot of that going around. Center Joel James admitted the team was still learning how to play with each other, “especially with McAdoo at the 3, it’s kind of awkward.”

Until the NCAA rules on Hairston and McDonald, Carolina will have to make awkward feel and look like normal.

“And the end of the day, like coach always says, we’re basketball players,” McAdoo said. “He didn’t recruit us all necessarily to play one solid position. But to go out there and play with each other and win a basketball game.”

Other notes:

• Williams is still looking for a starting center. James started the game there and both Meeks and Desmond Hubert also got their time.

“Tonight was a little shaky at the 5 spot,” James said. “Coach is looking for a guy, ultimately, who can rebound. In the first part of the game, we were just giving up all the loose rebounds so he kept rotating 5s in and out.”

James finished with three rebounds in 16 minutes. Meeks came off the bench for 11 points and six rebounds in 13 minutes of play. Hubert had six rebounds -- four offensive -- and added eight points.

• Paige had a 2-on-1 fast break and tried to complete a behind-the-back pass to Brice Johnson, but he wrapped the ball too tight and his pass went out of bounds.

“[Williams] didn’t say anything to me, he turned around to the crowd and told them ‘that’s the dumbest basketball play he’d ever seen,’ and then he just looked at me,” Paige said. “He didn’t have to say anything -- I already knew as soon as it hit my foot. Yeah. That was a great decision on my part. It’s good to get it out of the way when it doesn’t count I guess.”

Position series: Center

October, 25, 2013
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This is the fifth and final installment of a position-by-position look at the Tar Heels.

Every other starting position might be claimed before coach Roy Williams names his starter at center. Freshman Kennedy Meeks, sophomore Joel James and junior Desmond Hubert are all in the mix and -- if there’s anything to be taken from Williams’ preseason lineup experiments -- he’s even used Jackson Simmons with the first five.

[+] EnlargeKennedy Meeks
Miller Safrit/ESPN.com Kennedy Meeks, a highly decorated recruit, is in the mix to start at center for North Carolina.
“Nobody has stepped up and taken it yet,” Williams said last week, adding that he didn’t anticipate naming a starter anytime soon. “That’s going to be not just a couple of days; it’ll be a couple of weeks, maybe even longer.”

Williams’ dilemma? He’s looking for someone who can be the consistent offensive threat inside to keep opponents honest.

“Kennedy, Joel and Desmond, if we throw the ball to them inside, they need to be able to convert,” Williams said. “We’ve spent a great deal of our time in preseason and we’ll continue to do that, too.”

Hubert is limited offensively, although he does give the Heels their best shot-blocking presence inside. He appeared in every game last season and led the team with 30 blocks, which nearly matched his total of 41 points scored.

James is still very much a work in progress. Williams said he had a good offseason, particularly in shedding some pounds and building his stamina. Oh, and his game improved, too.

“He played, very, very well. All the pros were talking about Joel and the nice things he was doing,” Williams said. “Now, he’s got to do it with this team. If he does it with this team, I’ll be as happy as all get out.”

Meeks could be that reliable scorer in the paint. He’s the most gifted offensively of the bunch, but he’s also the least experienced. Aside from questions about his conditioning – despite losing nearly 40 pounds to weigh in around 280 – there’s still a question if can he run in the offense.

“You’ve got to be able to carry it from the practice court to the game,” Williams said. “You’ve got to be able to carry instruction from the bench to the court. Every freshman has got some problems with that right now.”

Meeks has no problem with making outlet passes, though, which became a theme whenever Williams discusses his skill set. And in an offense that wants to run, that, too, could give him an advantage over James and Hubert. But Williams isn’t crowning anyone the starter just yet.

“It remains to be seen,” Williams said. “The big guys have to show that they can do more than last year. If one of them steps forward, then that will be great. But I do think I want a more balanced, inside scoring and outside scoring [team].”

Center

  • Kennedy Meeks: 6-9, 281, Fr.
  • Joel James: 6-10, 280, So., 2.3 ppg, 2.4 rpg, 51.7 FG percent
  • Desmond Hubert: 6-10, 225, Jr., 1.1 ppg, 1.7 rpg, 30 blks, 54.3 FG percent
  • Jackson Simmons: 6-7, 225, Jr., 1.8 ppg, 1.7 rpg, 65.8 FG percent

Position series: Power forward

October, 24, 2013
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This is the fourth installment of a position-by-position look at the Tar Heels.

Power forward should be a position of strength for Carolina this season. Junior James Michael McAdoo returns after starting every game last season. Sophomore Brice Johnson gained much-needed strength to his thin frame and will be able to hold his own. Freshman Isaiah Hicks adds a touch of athleticism and is arguably better than both McAdoo and Johnson at scoring around the basket. Junior Jackson Simmons has the experience and trust to contribute without trying to play outside of his skill set.

[+] EnlargeUNC/Kansas
Denny Medley/USA TODAY SportsJames Michael McAdoo should benefit from playing alongside a true center this season.
The Heels aren't as deep or as talented at any other position. That might be part of the reason why coach Roy Williams expects them to rebound better. Last season the Heels outrebounded opponents by an average of only 1.6 per game. That was by far the lowest margin in the Roy Williams era.

This group shouldn't have that problem, and the newcomer Hicks could be a big reason why.

"They always say rebounding is one skill that translates from level to level," sophomore guard Marcus Paige said. "I've seen it so far. He can go up and get a lot of balls that guys aren't able to get."

McAdoo led the team in rebounding last season at 7.3 per game. His average collapsed almost a full rebound per game the last quarter of the season, when he found himself playing against centers in the Heels' four guard lineup.

Williams expects McAdoo will thrive playing in a lineup with a center again.

"The only time he's had a five-man in there to play the post defense and post up was his freshman year, those few games after John (Henson) was out and he played with Tyler Zeller," Williams said. "Those were pretty doggone good times. It's been a shame that he hasn't had that low-post presence to play with and enable him to do some other things."

He should have that opportunity this season, especially if the Heels find consistency at center between Kennedy Meeks, Joel James and Desmond Hubert.

Williams will have all kinds of versatility at power forward thanks to each player having a different niche. Johnson could be the best defender of the four due to his ability to block shots.

"He has the quick bounce to be able to block some shots, and I think he's shown some of that in practice," Williams said. "And hopefully he'll show it in games too."

Simmons, a former walk-on, proved himself at Florida State with a career-high eight points including the game-winning basket.

"He adds a great deal to our team," Williams said. "Last year he was very significant in a couple of games, and I think he'll be very significant in more games this year."

Power forwards

  • James Michael McAdoo 6-9, 230, Jr., 14.4 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 44.5 FG%
  • Brice Johnson 6-9, 210, So., 5.4 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 51.1 FG%
  • Isaiah Hicks 6-8, 220, Fr., n/a
  • Jackson Simmons 6-7, 225, Jr., 1.8 ppg, 1.7 rpg, 65.8 FG%


Last year’s freshmen class of Marcus Paige, J.P. Tokoto, Joel James and Brice Johnson contributed from the outset. Paige started in 34 games, Johnson appeared in all 36. Tokoto played in 35 and James in 30.

This year’s trio of freshmen will be relied on in a similar manner. Center Kennedy Meeks has the best chance to become a starter out of the class, but guard Nate Britt and forward Isaiah Hicks will have an opportunity to play immediately.

[+] EnlargeKennedy Meeks
Miller Safrit/ESPN.com Freshman center Kennedy Meeks has dropped 36 pounds since arriving on campus.
Meeks, who coach Roy Williams said has dropped 36 pounds since arriving on campus, is competing with Joel James and Desmond Hubert to solidify the Heels inside. Offensively speaking, Meeks has an edge.

“He gives us an inside scorer, a strictly low-post, inside scorer, that we didn’t have last year,” Williams said.

The challenge for Meeks, a 6-foot-9 Charlotte native, is keeping his weight down. He arrived on campus weighing 317 pounds. As of last week, Williams said he was at 281. For Meeks, stamina might factor into how much he plays as much as skill does.

“Somebody asked me what weight do I want him to be,” Williams said. “I can’t give you a number, but I know how fast I want him to get up and down the court.”

Williams has raved about Meeks’ ability to make outlet passes to start the Heels in transition, calling him “the best outlet passing big man I’ve ever had.”

The only two players locked into the starting lineup are Paige and forward James Michael McAdoo. That’s why it’s unlikely Britt and Hicks will crack the starting five. Although from Williams’ lineup experiments, there’s a scenario where McAdoo plays small forward in a big lineup and Hicks could play power forward.

Britt, who is 5-11, doesn’t need to challenge Paige in order to be effective for Carolina.

“Nate gives us another true point guard that we hadn’t had the last couple of years,” Williams said. “So I love that he really is understanding pushing the pace. Now we've got to get him to get under control when he does get there.”

Hicks, arguably the biggest signing of the trio, has been compared to former Cincinnati standout Kenyon Martin. Williams loves his athleticism but said right now he’s “just roaming around trying to figure out where he’s supposed to be.” Once he does figure things out, Williams believes the 6-8 Oxford, N.C., native has a chance to be special.

“Isaiah’s a guy that got 30 rebounds in the state finals,” Williams said. “That’s as big as it can get in high school basketball. So if he can rebound it like that on that stage then we expect him to do the same things.”

 
GREENSBORO, N.C. – P.J. Hairston's hand hurt after North Carolina’s 79-76 ACC tournament semifinal victory over Maryland on Saturday. But the Tar Heels sophomore, who needed eight stitches Friday to close a bloody laceration between two fingers, said he would have hurt more if he didn’t play.

And so, frankly, might have his team.

The wing-turned-power forward wasn’t the Tar Heels’ highest scorer; both Reggie Bullock and Dexter Strickland finished two points ahead of him, with 15 apiece. And Hairston didn’t make the most noteworthy plays down the stretch, when the Terps cut a double-figures lead back to within upset distance. Those moments came from forward James Michael McAdoo, who converted two clutch free throws; point guard Marcus Paige, who scored a couple of key buckets; and Terrapins guard Logan Aronhalt, who opted to throw up long, desperation 3 that found nothing but air with time left on the clock.

Still, Hairston’s ability to start despite a heavily bandaged left hand -- and finish with 13 points and four rebounds -- allowed the Tar Heels (24-9) to stick with their four-guard starting lineup.

And to continue competing the way they’ve grown most comfortable.

“I think it was huge just for him to be able to be out there,’’ McAdoo, who finished with 13 points and eight rebounds, said of Hairston. “We didn’t know if he was going to be able to contribute, but just to have him out there on the floor gave our team a lot of confidence … because having him there is what we’ve grown used to.”

And been successful with. The Tar Heels now are 8-2 since coach Roy Williams opted to insert the 6-foot-5 Hairston for 6-11 Desmond Hubert, and no one really wanted to mess with that faster, more confident, better-shooting mojo, if possible.

[+] EnlargeNorth Carolina's P.J. Hairston
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesDespite playing with a bandaged left hand, North Carolina's P.J. Hairston scored 13 points in an ACC semifinal against Maryland.
“I wanted to help my team, and I wanted to make sure we won and advanced,’’ Hairston said.

There was some doubt, though, about how much help he could be after he left Friday’s win over Florida State with about four minutes left, blood dripping all over the court. Hairston sustained the cut between the middle and ring fingers on his non-shooting hand when a Seminole was trying to make a steal, and he didn’t immediately know the extent of his injury.

“When it happened, I didn’t know it happened,’’ Hairston said. “I was running back … and I wiped my face, and I happened to look at my hand, and I was dripping blood all over the floor. I’m like, ‘OK,’ and when I got to the bench, no one knew where the blood was coming from. But as soon as we wiped the blood off, I saw that it was split straight down the middle of my hand [between the fingers]. It was weird.”

And a little bit scary.

“Last night I thought I was going to die,’’ he said. “I was in the training room with my mom holding my hand. They told me, ‘OK, we’re going to clean it out and stitch on it,’ … and as soon as the alcohol and soap hit my hand I screamed for my life.”

Thus, Williams didn’t know if he was going to be able to play Hairston until just before the game, when the player was able to dribble, catch and pass without any problem. But even then, he told Hairston his playing time would be dependent on how effective he could be.

So the scorer hit his first 3-point try just 73 seconds into the game.

And he played 36 minutes.

“He was one tough sucker today,’’ Williams said. “I think the hand bothered him a little bit … he was 3-for-10, he had some good looks, but at the same time, I think what he helped us do out on the court was extremely important."

And will continue to be important Sunday, when the third-seeded Tar Heels face top seed Miami in the tournament championship game.

UNC lost to the Hurricanes twice during the regular season -- the second time, in mid-February, leading to Williams’ decision to make the switch to go smaller with his opening five. Since that move, the Tar Heels have become more cohesive than the crew that started ACC play 0-2.

And they say they were even more inspired Saturday, watching Hairston play well despite the stitches and cushioned bandage and post-game soreness.

“Right now it hurts pretty bad,” he said, “but I’ll be fine. On the court, when my adrenaline gets going, it feels like a regular hand.”
Despite winning four consecutive games, North Carolina will be looking to rebound Sunday against Florida State.

As in, box out. Battle. Grab the ball with two hands.

Or else.

Tar Heels coach Roy Williams was downright peeved after Thursday’s victory at Clemson, saying his players were “acting like a bunch of pansies” when they were out-rebounded 14 in the second half. UNC might have gone to a smaller, four-guard starting line-up, which has resulted in more forced turnovers, better firepower and an even faster pace, but that doesn’t mean getting beaten on the boards is OK.

“No, I’m not going to accept it because tonight it was lack of effort,’’ Williams said after the win over the Tigers. “If we try to box a guy out and they beat us to the ball and that kind of stuff, then I can accept it. But we were very inadequate on the backboards, to say the least.”

In FSU (15-13, 7-8 ACC), the Tar Heels (20-8, 10-5) face the worst rebounding team in the ACC; the Seminoles are averaging only 31.3 per game. And although 6-foot-8 Terrance Shannon, out since January with a neck injury, has been cleared to play, coach Leonard Hamilton said he’d be shocked if the junior was ready for Sunday’s game. Shannon was the team’s best rebounder prior to his injury.

A few other things to watch during the 2 p.m. ET tipoff at the Smith Center:

DEXTER STRICKLAND

The UNC senior tied his season high with 16 points at Clemson, shooting 7-for-9 while also getting 3 rebounds and 4 assists. He’s now scored in double figures in three of his past five games; players have said that inserting 6-5 P.J. Hairston for 6-9 Desmond Hubert has added more lanes to the basket, and Strickland has taken advantage.

The shooting guard also has regained his speed throughout the season, after ACL surgery a year ago sidelined him for the second half of 2011-12.

MICHAEL SNAER

There are so many reasons to keep an eye on this guy.

The Seminoles senior guard was just 3-for-9 with nine points when UNC won at FSU 77-72 earlier this season. But he has been scoring more of late, getting 20 or more points in three of the Noles’ last four games.

And then there’s the last-second-shot factor: Snaer has made three game-winners this season, and five over the past two ACC seasons. UNC doesn’t want this to be a close one down the stretch.

THE ACC STANDINGS

The Tar Heels enter this game tied for third place with Virginia in the ACC standings; the top four teams get a first-day bye in the ACC tournament. The Cavaliers, fresh off an upset of Duke, play at Boston College on Sunday. NC State, in fifth place and a game behind in the standings, plays at Georgia Tech on Sunday.

A Closer Look: UNC 68, Clemson 59

February, 28, 2013
2/28/13
9:37
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North Carolina’s smaller lineup continues to come up big.

The Tar Heels (20-8, 10-5 ACC) won their fourth consecutive game Thursday night, 68-59 at Clemson, and are now 4-1 since coach Roy Williams opted to insert 6-foot-5 P.J. Hairston into the lineup for 6-11 Desmond Hubert. And UNC continued to show signs that it’s all starting to come together -- and at the right time.

Senior guard Dexter Strickland, looking healthier and healthier as the season has progressed, led the Tar Heels with 16 points. Point guard Marcus Paige continued to show more confidence in his offense, finishing with 10 points and four assists. And Reggie Bullock did a little bit of everything yet again, recording 12 points, 6 assists and 9 rebounds.

A closer look at the Tar Heels’ victory at Littlejohn Coliseum:

Turning point: The score was knotted 18-18 with about 10 minutes to go in the first half when UNC broke away with a 12-2 run. Reserve Leslie McDonald jump-started it with back-to-back 3-pointers, Hairston added a 3, and forward James Michael McAdoo added a three-point play to give the Tar Heels a 30-20 lead.

The Tar Heels didn’t play a particularly pretty second half, as the Tigers outrebounded them and clawed to within seven points with a minute left in the game. But UNC’s cushion was plenty, especially against a foe that has struggled to score this season.

“Well, we’re happy to get an ACC win on the road,'' Williams said. "There’s no question about that. But boy, we finished the game about as ugly as you can finish it. We missed some free throws. They outrebounded us by 14 in the second half, and they ended up outrebounding us by nine for the game. You can’t have that and be very good. We got sloppy."

Players(s) of the game: Strickland made 7 of his 9 shot attempts and also added 3 rebounds and 4 assists.

Forwards Devin Booker (25 points, 11 rebounds) and Milton Jennings (12 points, 10 rebounds) both had double-doubles for the Tigers (13-14, 5-10).

What it means for UNC: Security. Beating a team with an RPI near the mid-100s might not exactly turbocharge the Tar Heels’ ever-strengthening NCAA résumé, but a loss likely would have hurt.

The victory kept the Tar Heels even with Virginia (which upset No. 3 Duke later Thursday night) for third place in the ACC standings; the top four seeds earn a first-day bye in the upcoming league tournament.

What it means for Clemson: More growing pains. Entering the game, the Tigers ranked last in the ACC in scoring (61.8 points per game) and 10th in field-goal percentage (42.6). And they were not helped by the fact that starter K.J. McDaniels, one of only two Tigers averaging double figures (10.7 ppg), sat out Thursday due to an ankle injury. The Tigers shot 39.7 percent for the game.

Etc.: The victory secured UNC’s 40th 20-win season in the last 43 years. … UNC reserve big man Joel James, who had missed four straight games because of a concussion, returned and played two minutes.

Up next: Clemson plays at Virginia Tech on Saturday; UNC hosts Florida State on Sunday.
A couple of notes from North Carolina coach Roy Williams during Monday’s ACC conference call:

A SMALL QUESTION: The Tar Heels are now 3-1 since making the switch to a four-guard lineup, inserting 6-foot-5 P.J. Hairston instead of 6-9 Desmond Hubert. Williams reiterated that the switch has made UNC a better offensive team.

When we had Desmond Hubert in there, we thought we were stronger defensively and stronger rebounding, but we were not getting any scoring out of that spot. If we struggled at any other position on the court scoring-wise, that meant that we only had three scorers. So if two of those guys have a bad night, then you're really down.

“So we decided to go with five guys who could score more with P.J. in there, and hope he could fight like crazy and front the guy in the post, and that we could emphasize the rebounding part with our other perimeter guys more, we wouldn't be killed on the boards. Bottom line, we thought it was a much more effective offensive lineup for us, and hopefully wouldn't kill us on the defensive end."

Hairston is averaging better than 18 points per the game since the switch, and the Tar Heels are back to receiving votes in both the AP and coaches polls.

HOME ADVANTAGE: UNC plays at Clemson on Thursday, and the Tigers have played much better at home (4-3 in ACC play) than on the road (1-6). The reason there’s such a home-road disparity for some teams?

Experience, Williams said.

“Young teams feel more comfortable at home than they do getting out of their environment; they may not be as confident going on the road,’’ he said. “But believing you can win on the road is a very important thing for your team to have. I think with young kids, it's hard to get them to handle that adversity. The other team scores two straight baskets and the crowd is going crazy. Young kids have a more difficult time focusing on what you're trying to do and doing what you're doing correctly. So it's very difficult.

“You look at every league in college basketball, the record is always better at home. But the younger your team is, that is the teams that probably struggle more on the road. If they have some success on the road and believe that they can do it, I think it helps them out."

The Tar Heels are 3-4 thus far in conference road games this season.

"I didn't feel like I had a lot of success at Raleigh and Miami and Duke ... at Virginia, but we've won a couple of games on the road,’’ Williams said. “I think our teams have always been good on the road. But we still have Reggie [Bullock, a junior] and James Michael [McAdoo] and the rest of our team is pretty young. We have to make sure our kids believe they can win, which is part of it. But the kids have to step up and do it themselves."

Paige's improved play propels UNC

February, 23, 2013
2/23/13
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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- North Carolina coach Roy Williams didn’t have to tell point guard Marcus Paige that he needed to play a whole lot better Saturday than the previous time the Tar Heels faced NC State.

Paige knew.

And he did.

The freshman, who looked lost and performed like it when the Tar Heels got whipped by the Wolfpack last month in Raleigh, rallied his team with an inspired, confident, 14-point, eight-assist effort during UNC’s 76-65 victory at the Smith Center.

NC State coach Mark Gottfried called Paige’s shots down the stretch Saturday “timely.”

And they were. But not just for that game -- also for the future of a Tar Heels team that finally seems to be putting its pieces together cohesively after switching to a smaller lineup four games ago.

“It’s just confidence and experience -- he has those now," senior guard Dexter Strickland said. “For [Paige] to be able to step up and hit those shots now, that’s huge for us, and where we are as a team.”

Where they are now, at 19-8 overall and 9-5 in the ACC, is third place in the league standings -- a half-game ahead of Virginia (which plays Sunday) and a full game ahead of the Wolfpack (19-8, 8-6). That’s important because only the top four teams earn a first-day bye in the ACC tournament.

And where they are now is looking calmer and more capable, going 3-1 since 6-foot-5 wing P.J. Hairston was inserted into the starting lineup, in place of 6-9 forward Desmond Hubert. The switch has made the Tar Heels faster, put another scorer on the floor, and opened more lanes for both Paige and Strickland to get to the basket.

“I think we’re starting to click more a little bit," Paige said.

[+] EnlargeReggie Bullock
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesNorth Carolina's Reggie Bullock impressed with his shooting ability Thursday.
A big part of that click is Paige, who went 2-for-11 with four assists and three turnovers during the Tar Heels' 91-83 loss last month at NC State. During that game, the freshman got outclassed by Wolfpack point guard Lorenzo Brown, who pushed a strong transition game -- and pushed past Paige on a regular basis. And the Tar Heels, Paige said, "got a little bit embarrassed," falling behind by as many as 28 points.

“That was the first time I played against a really big-time player, and he got the best of me in that matchup," Paige said. “[But] I couldn’t let him have a big night this time, because he kind of makes their whole offense go. I just wanted to try to contain him and make things as difficult for him as I could. And it ended up working out.”

Brown, still not quite 100 percent after an ankle sprain that sidelined him for two games earlier this month, finished with 12 points and 12 assists Saturday. But this time around, Paige was the aggressor -- especially when it mattered most.

After NC State used a 13-2 run early in the second half to turn a 10-point deficit into a 43-42 lead, Williams used his pull-'em-all approach, and inserted Paige, Luke Davis, J.P. Tokoto, Jackson Simmons and Hubert to give his more-used players a few minutes to ponder their lack of focus. Paige hit a 3-pointer -- a key shot considering Wolfpack wing Scott Wood countered with back-to-back 3s to extend his team’s run to 19-5.

But it was a few minutes later, with State still leading 55-52, when Paige really made his presence felt.

During what would become an 18-2 breakaway, and with the regulars back on the floor, he buried a 3-pointer to give the Tar Heels a 57-55 lead. After two Leslie McDonald free throws and a Reggie Bullock 3, he drove past Wood for a three-point play. And after another Bullock 3-pointer, Paige buried two free throws to give his team a comfy 70-57 cushion with less than four minutes left.

“I just think you’ve got to be able to step up and make big shots in times like that," Paige said. “And if defenses are going to leave you open, they’re challenging you to make shots like that. So to step up and make shots like that, that was big for me.”

And his team.

Bullock, who finished with a game-high 22 points and a career-high-tying 13 rebounds, also was big for UNC. As was the fact that NC State star forward C.J. Leslie finished with as many turnovers as points (6), and that the Tar Heels scored 24 points off turnovers (the Wolfpack had 16 for the game).

But Paige’s obvious growth since the previous time he faced NC State on Jan. 26 pulled it all together. It kept the rival Wolfpack from sweeping the Tar Heels for the first time since 2002-03. And it propelled the Tar Heels to their third consecutive victory.

He needed to improve. He knew it. And he did.

“My freshman is a tough little nut," Williams said. “And he’s getting better and better.”

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- North Carolina sophomore P.J. Hairston says his team hasn’t talked much about the NCAA tournament or its chances of getting there.

Thanks to the 6-foot-5 shooting guard/power forward -- and coach Roy Williams’ decision to keep him in the starting lineup -- maybe, just maybe, the Tar Heels won’t have any anxiety on Selection Sunday.

Beating Virginia -- another team considered on the postseason bubble -- 93-81 at the Smith Center on Saturday was key to UNC rallying from back-to-back road losses last week and strengthening its NCAA résumé with less than a month left in the regular season.

But it was how the Tar Heels did it -- going small with Hairston starting at the 4 for the second straight game and getting a career-high 29 points from him -- that might be most important. The change to the starting lineup has seemingly renewed the Tar Heels’ energy. And pace. And ability to score. And confidence.

“It’s a lot more fun," said point guard Marcus Paige, who had 17 points and three assists in the win. “Everything is easier for us right now because of the way P.J.’s been playing -- because of the lanes Dexter [Strickland] has to attack, the lanes I have to attack, the space that James Michael [McAdoo] has to operate with.”

Indeed, everything seemed more fluid with Hairston running the floor, defending and making shot after shot. Although the Tar Heels (17-8, 7-5 ACC) fell behind by as many as 10 points early, it was Hairston who helped shoot them back, recording back-to-back 3s late in the first half to give the Tar Heels a three-point lead.

In the second half, with Virginia (18-7, 8-4) winger Joe Harris (career-high 27 points) trying to keep his team in the game with a shooting binge of his own, Hairston kept countering.

When Harris made a 3-pointer with 14:14 left to cut UNC’s lead to five, Hairston responded with a 3.

[+] EnlargeP.J. Hairston
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesWith his numerous off-court issues lately, P.J. Hairston has a lot of making up to do within the UNC basketball family.
A Hairston 3-pointer with 5:41 left gave the Tar Heels their largest lead of the game at 83-65. And when Harris cut his team’s deficit to nine points on a three-point play two minutes later, Hairston hit two free throws to push the cushion back to double figures for good.

“He’s been on a tear," said Virginia coach Tony Bennett, whose defensive-minded team gave up the most points in a first half (40) and a game (93) this season.

Been? Still is.

The only reason Hairston didn’t score 30-plus was because he opted to pass up a 3 with about a minute left.

“I had a wide-open shot in the corner, and I looked at Coach [Williams] and pump-faked it," said Hairston, who shot 8-for-14 for the game. “I really wanted to shoot it, but I said, ‘I’m not going to be like that’ [with such a big lead]. I just dribbled it out and kind of laughed at Coach.

“But I did think every shot I took in the second half was going to go in.”

Williams, who said he had pondered switching to a smaller opening lineup four or five games ago, wouldn’t expand Saturday on why he finally opted to do it prior to Wednesday’s loss at Duke, where Hairston tied his then-career high with 23 points.

“Sometimes you guys don’t have to know everything," Williams said. “Maybe they made Coach mad, wore the wrong color shoe, smiled at the wrong person. I have reasons, and those reasons will stay with me.”

But the reason he can stick with it -- switching 6-9 freshman Desmond Hubert for a guy four inches shorter -- is Hairston’s ability to rebound.

He pulled down eight at Duke on Wednesday and seven against the Cavs. UNC outrebounded Virginia 32-21 for the game.

“That was huge for us today," Williams said. “One time James Michael shot the ball from the baseline and we had nobody to get to the boards, and I said, ‘Guys, you small guys that like this small lineup. I cannot do that if you guys aren’t getting to the boards when James Michael shoots.' We can’t tell him not to shoot. He can’t be our only rebounder.

“So the rebounding part, I think, is the most crucial part of the game.”

And regarding the new starting lineup, which Williams plans to keep: “I don’t know. If you score 29 points, that’s not a very good reason to keep you in the game," he said sarcastically.

He added: “We’re still not playing anywhere close to how I want to run. But we’re playing harder. … It gives us better spacing, more guys who can score, better opportunities to drive.”

And thus, win.

Which the Tar Heels need to keep doing if they want to avoid worrying -- or talking, or getting asked -- about an NCAA bid.

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