North Carolina Tar Heels: North Carolina Tar Heels

If you’ve noticed a sudden rush of recruiting information for 2016 prospects in the last few days, it's no coincidence.

Sunday was the first day that college coaches were permitted to contact prospects in the rising junior class, and for some prospects that literally meant the phone rang when the clock struck midnight.

Often times, those conversations are followed by some sort of offer. Here’s a look at some of the latest news for the Class of 2016:

In high school basketball, the best players usually concentrate on their offense because that’s how their teams win games. But there are several prospects who have the potential to be elite defenders. Let’s examine the five best defenders among the incoming freshmen and one from the Class of 2015.

1. Justise Winslow, Duke
Winslow has a college-ready body and mindset that will help him influence the game with his defensive prowess. His defensive versatility might be the best among the entire freshman class as the 6-foot-6 forward can defend point guards through power forwards. The athletic Winslow can be a factor in full-court pressure or trapping situations as well as in a straight-up man-to-man denial defense locking up, the opposing team's best offensive threat. What makes him a special defender is that he is always thinking about where he should be next on the floor. Winslow will be extremely important for Duke next season.


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Class of 2014's best shooters 

May, 6, 2014
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Though the top three prospects in the Class of 2014 are big men who control the paint, there are several outstanding shooters in the class. Let’s examine the five best shooters among the incoming freshmen and one from the Class of 2015.

1. Justin Jackson, North Carolina
He started out as a 3-point shooter but has developed into a master of the mid-range jump shot. Most outstanding shooters are confident and comfortable from a certain spot on the floor, but that’s not the case with Jackson. He is equally effective and productive from a catch-and-shoot scenario as he is putting the ball on the deck and rising up to finish inside the arc or in the paint. A combination of length, balance and extension with a feathery touch will make him hard to defend.


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Tip-off Live

February, 19, 2014
Feb 19
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To watch on your smart phone, click here.

ESPN.com reporters Eamonn Brennan, Myron Medcalf and Dana O’Neil joined host Chantel Jennings to check in on undefeated Syracuse and the status of Oklahoma State’s tournament hopes. It’s also time to preview Duke’s delayed tilt with suddenly hot North Carolina.

Weekend Homework: Clemson-UNC streak

January, 24, 2014
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It’s one of the most remarkable records in college basketball.

0-56.

Clemson has never ventured into Chapel Hill and left with a victory over North Carolina (Sunday, 6 p.m. ET on ESPNU/WatchESPN). Most games haven’t been close, either. The Tigers have come within single digits on just eight occasions.

It’s the longest streak of its kind. And every season, the thought becomes that surely it can’t continue forever. At some point, the Tar Heels have to get caught slipping and the bounces have to go Clemson’s way. That’s covered somewhere in the law of averages, right?

Apparently not. Until this point, Carolina has escaped every time the Tigers looked to have the upper hand.

It happened when Rick Barnes, now the coach at Texas, brought a No. 2-ranked Clemson squad to Chapel Hill to face the reeling and young Heels. UNC started off ACC play 0-3 in the 1996-97 season and Barnes seemed poised to make program history.

In what turned out to be coach Dean Smith’s last contribution to extending the streak, the Heels won 61-48 and would eventually end up in the Final Four.

Carolina probably felt the most anxiety about keeping the streak alive in its 8-20 season in 2001-02 -- the only losing season since Smith’s first at the helm in 1961-62. But even that Matt Doherty-coached team closed out Clemson 96-78 on senior day. That win seemed to signal that, even at its worst, UNC was still good enough to beat the Tigers when the Heels were at home.

The teams first met in 1926, and, in the modern era, the Tar Heels have rarely been as vulnerable as they are this season. They’ve already had three losses at the Dean Smith Center, including an 83-80 setback to Belmont.

The Tigers raised eyebrows by upsetting Duke at home, although that enthusiasm was tempered Tuesday after they lost by 33 at Pittsburgh.

Clemson does boast the nation’s top scoring defense, allowing just 53.5 points per game. If the Tigers can keep the game played at a slower pace in the half court, North Carolina has proved that it doesn’t fare well in those situations.

But can the Tigers, who have heard more than they want to hear about the streak, overcome their wretched history in Chapel Hill long enough to complete a victory?

“I’m sure I’ll allude to it,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell told The Charlotte Observer. “I don’t make a big deal out of it. It’s not the center point of your speech, of what you’re trying to do to win the game. ‘Let’s be the first team.’ You’re not doing that.”

Maybe he won’t. But chances are Carolina will. For a team whose effort has sometimes been questioned, the Tar Heels will try to summon a top performance to avoid becoming the first team in school history to lose to Clemson.

Biancardi’s Breakdown: Best for '14 

December, 30, 2013
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Basketball is played right through the new year, so as we look back and plan ahead let’s take a look halfway through this season at which 2014 prospects have performed best in 14 categories.

1. Best in the low post: Jahlil Okafor (Chicago/Whitney Young), Duke signee
If a team needs to score a basket in the lower half of the painted area, Okafor is the one to pass it to. He has secure hands to catch almost any pass and a soft touch with superb footwork. He also has a wide mobile body to seal his man and the patience to throw the ball back out and re-post his 7-foot-3 wing span.


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Join us for College Hoops Live

December, 5, 2013
12/05/13
11:45
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Starting at 1 p.m. ET, we’re talking Big Ten/ACC Challenge, Wooden Watch and anything else you’d like to discuss in the world of college basketball.

Send in your questions and comments to Andy Katz and Eamonn Brennan and we’ll post as many of them as we can.

Big Ten/ACC Challenge Live

December, 4, 2013
12/04/13
12:31
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To watch on your smart phone, click here.

ESPN.com college basketball reporters Eamonn Brennan, Myron Medcalf and C.L. Brown discuss the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.

3-point shot: UNC's unusual request

November, 26, 2013
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Andy Katz discusses an unusual request by UNC, a surge of confidence at Vermont and an emerging contender in Charlotte.

Can UNC overcome free throw woes?

November, 21, 2013
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Will North Carolina’s nightmarish outing at the free throw line against Belmont carry over into Saturday’s meeting with Richmond?

The Tar Heels repeatedly talked about the mental aspect of free throw shooting after missing 26 free throws in Sunday’s 83-80 loss to the Bruins. They talked about misses in the first half having a snowball effect and spreading no matter which player went to the line.

“You can talk about it, you can not talk about it -- I mean, it’s free throws,” sophomore guard Marcus Paige said. “He [Roy Williams] can’t make them for us, there’s really not anything you can say to a guy struggling on the line. I mean, what do you say to him?”

So if they miss a few early against the Spiders, does the Belmont outing creep back into their collective minds?

Sophomore J.P. Tokoto's first trip to the line will be the litmus test because he had the toughest outing against Belmont.

Coach Roy Williams said the last time he had the team shoot 200 free throws in practice, Tokoto shot 84 percent. He made his first free throw against Belmont -- then missed the next nine en route to 4-of-16 shooting.

His body language grew increasingly worse with every trip to the line. The uneasiness within the Dean E. Smith Center crowd was palpable until they finally just started clapping in support for Tokoto before he shot his final few free throws.

“That’s pretty much all it was, just mental for me,” he said.

Tokoto was back in the gym Sunday night practicing free throws before reporters had completely cleared out of the media room.

It’s inevitable that he’ll get to the line -- he’s the only natural small forward on the team, and his game is to slash to the rim. Tokoto has the second-most attempts on the team (25), just four behind James Michael McAdoo. No other Carolina player has registered 10 attempts.

Considering that the Heels lost to Belmont and Richmond beat the Bruins, UNC could again be locked in a close game in which free throws matter. Will it be strong enough to handle it?

Nonconference schedule analysis: ACC

September, 9, 2013
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This week, ESPN.com is breaking down the nonconference schedules of each team in nine of the nation's top leagues. Let's carry on with the ACC.

BOSTON COLLEGE

Toughest: 2K Sports Classic (Nov. 21-22), at Purdue (Dec. 4), vs. VCU (Dec. 28 in Brooklyn), at Harvard (Jan. 1)
Next-toughest: at Providence (Nov. 8), vs. UMass (Nov. 10 at TD Garden, Boston)
The rest: Toledo (Nov. 14), Florida Atlantic (Nov. 17), Sacred Heart (Nov. 26), at USC (Dec. 8), vs. Philadelphia (Dec. 15), at Auburn (Dec. 22)

Toughness scale (1-10): 7 — The differences between Boston College's 2012-13 schedule and its slate in 2013-14 mirror the differences in the two squads' expectations. Last season's Eagles were young and still very much rebuilding; this year's group, led by Ryan Anderson and Olivier Hanlan, has serious sleeper potential. We'll get to see just how much in late November, when Steve Donahue's team takes on UConn and then either Indiana or Washington in Madison Square Garden, followed by a trip to Purdue, a New Year's date at Harvard, and what should be a fascinating nonconference sojourn to New York City to play VCU.

CLEMSON

Toughest: Charleston Classic (Nov. 21-24), at Arkansas (Dec. 7)
Next-toughest: South Carolina (Nov. 17)
The rest: Stetson (Nov. 8), Delaware State (Nov. 13), Coastal Carolina (Nov. 29), South Carolina State (Dec. 3), Furman (Dec. 14), at Auburn (Dec. 19), VMI (Dec. 30)

Toughness scale (1-10): 2 — I'm not sure whether it's possible to hand out a zero in these nonconference rankings. I'm pretty sure it's never been done. And I haven't seen every schedule in the country yet, I admit. But still: Clemson's schedule is … not great. It is possessed of exactly one interesting event -- the Charleston Classic, aka "a bunch of so-so teams and New Mexico" -- and, save a trip to Arkansas (if that), nothing else. (This isn't actual criticism, by the way. Clemson looks as if it's in the process of a big rebuild, and you wouldn't expect it to schedule hard in advance of this loaded ACC. But still. Ick.)

DUKE

Toughest: vs. Kansas (Nov. 12 in Chicago), NIT Season Tip-Off (Nov. 27-29), Michigan (Dec. 3), vs. UCLA (Dec. 19 in New York City)
Next-toughest: Davidson (Nov. 8)
The rest: Florida Atlantic (Nov. 15), UNC Asheville (Nov. 18), East Carolina/Norfolk State (Nov. 19), Vermont (Nov. 24), Gardner-Webb (Dec. 16), Eastern Michigan (Dec. 28), Elon (Dec. 31)

Toughness scale (1-10): 8 — The Blue Devils rarely overdo it with their schedules, but just as rarely make it to ACC season without at least a handful of solid results on their docket. So it is again in 2013-14, if slightly tougher than the norm. That's true for a few reasons: Duke drew high-powered Michigan in its ACC/Big Ten matchup; Duke plays Kansas, which landed uber-recruit Andrew Wiggins this summer, in the Champions Classic in November; the Blue Devils look likely to get Arizona in the NIT Season Tip-Off; and UCLA could be formidable if the leftover talent from Ben Howland's tenure jells under Steve Alford. But all of these games are safely within the Blue Devils' sphere of influence. Somehow, Coach K managed to get two of the West Coast's marquee programs without going any farther west than Chicago. Same as it ever was.

FLORIDA STATE

Toughest: Puerto Rico Tip-Off (Nov. 21-24), at Florida (Nov. 29)
Next-toughest: at Minnesota (Dec. 3)
The rest: Jacksonville (Nov. 8), at UCF (Nov. 13), UT-Martin (Nov. 17), Jacksonville State (Dec. 8), Charlotte (Dec. 17), vs. Massachusetts (Dec. 21 in Sunrise, Fla.), Charleston Southern (Dec. 30)

Toughness scale (1-10): 7 — Florida State's season would have looked much different if two freshmen -- Wiggins, who looked hard at his parents' alma mater before choosing to go to Kansas instead; and Xavier Rathan-Mayes, a top-50 recruit who did not get through the NCAA clearinghouse this spring -- had joined up. Without them, star forward Okaro White has a daunting challenge ahead of him all season, beginning with a really good field in Puerto Rico (with first-round opponent VCU, plus Michigan, Georgetown, Kansas State in the mix), followed by road trips to Florida and Minnesota in close succession.

GEORGIA TECH

Toughest: Barclays Center Classic (Nov. 29-30), Illinois (Dec. 3)
Next-toughest: at Georgia (Nov. 15), Dayton (Nov. 20) The rest: Presbyterian (Nov. 8), Delaware State (Nov. 11), North Carolina A&T (Nov. 24), Mississippi Valley State (Nov. 26), East Tennessee State (Dec. 7), Kennesaw State (Dec. 16), at Vanderbilt (Dec. 21), at Charlotte (Dec. 29)

Toughness scale (1-10): 5 — The Yellow Jackets don't have a ton here, but what they do have is solid enough, given where the program is sitting (probably best described as "getting better, if slowly") under third-year coach Brian Gregory. The Barclays Center Classic is a better-than-you-think event, with Ole Miss (and Marshall Henderson, which should be fun) followed by Penn State or St. John's, both of which should be improved over 2012-13. Illinois is the other notable nonconference game, a rematch of last season's 75-62 loss in Champaign, Ill.

MARYLAND

Toughest: UConn (Nov. 8 in Brooklyn), at Ohio State (Dec. 4)
Next-toughest: Oregon State (Nov. 17), Paradise Jam (Nov. 22-25)
The rest: Abilene Christian (Nov. 13), Morgan State (Nov. 29), at George Washington (Dec. 8), Florida Atlantic (Dec. 14), Boston University (Dec. 21), Tulsa (Dec. 29), North Carolina Central (Dec. 31)

Toughness scale (1-10): 6 — The Terrapins won't get much in the way of RPI boost out of their early-season tournament; La Salle, Providence and maybe Northern Iowa appear to be the only reasonable challengers in the Virgin Islands. But the Terps do have a good opening night date with UConn in Brooklyn, similar to last year's near miss against Kentucky, and the Big Ten-ACC Challenge sends them to Ohio State, which is guaranteed to be a win on the RPI sheet no matter what happens on the floor.

MIAMI

Toughest: Wooden Legacy (Nov. 28-Dec. 1)
Next-toughest: La Salle (Dec. 22)
The rest: St. Francis (Nov. 8), Georgia Southern (Nov. 11), Texas Southern (Nov. 14), at Charleston (Nov. 18), UCF (Nov. 21), Nebraska (Dec. 4), at Savannah State (Dec. 19), Loyola-Md. (Dec. 30)

Toughness scale (1-10): 6 — After a thoroughly euphoric 2012-13 season marked by an ACC regular-season and tournament title, a No. 2 tournament seed, and a first-round draft pick (point guard Shane Larkin), the Hurricanes are due for a serious hangover in 2013-14. Fortunately, their nonconference schedule shouldn't be too punishing. Other than the Wooden Legacy -- a quality field featuring Creighton, Marquette, San Diego State and Arizona State -- La Salle is the one real opponent of note, and the Explorers have to come to Coral Gables.

NORTH CAROLINA

Toughest: Hall of Fame Tipoff (Nov. 23-24), at Michigan State (Dec. 4), Kentucky (Dec. 14)
Next-toughest: Texas (Dec. 18)
The rest: Oakland (Nov. 8), Holy Cross (Nov. 15), Belmont (Nov. 17), at UAB (Dec. 1), UNC Greensboro (Dec. 7), Davidson (Dec. 21), Northern Kentucky (Dec. 27), UNC Wilmington (Dec. 31)

Toughness scale (1-10): 9 — The usual North Carolina scheduling partners are all here. There's that trip to Michigan State (this time thanks to the ACC/Big Ten Challenge), the home-and-home with Texas, the huge mid-December date with Kentucky -- it's all there. This year, UNC even adds to that with the Hall of Fame Tipoff tournament, which, if expectations hold, will put the Tar Heels up against defending national champion Louisville in Uncasville, Conn. (after an opening game against Richmond). That means the Heels are likely to face the preseason No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 teams in the country before the middle of December. Not too shabby.

NC STATE

Toughest: at Cincinnati (Nov. 12), at Tennessee (Dec. 18)
Next-toughest: Missouri (Dec. 28)
The rest: Appalachian State (Nov. 8), Campbell (Nov. 16), North Carolina Central (Nov. 20), Florida Gulf Coast (Nov. 26), Eastern Kentucky (Nov. 30), Northwestern (Dec. 4), Long Beach State (Dec. 7), Detroit (Dec. 14), East Carolina (Dec. 21)

Toughness scale (1-10): 5 -- NC State's young but promising batch of talent might surprise some people this season, particularly if the Wolfpack are ready for those key road dates at Cincinnati and Tennessee. It's hard to know what to expect from Missouri this season, but that could end up being a quality chance for a nonconference win in Raleigh. A two-loss nonconference run -- or better -- would have folks jumping aboard the T.J. Warren bandwagon just in time for ACC play.

NOTRE DAME

Toughest: at Iowa (Dec. 3), vs. Ohio State (Dec. 21 in New York)
Next-toughest: vs. Indiana (Dec. 14 in Indianapolis, Ind.)
The rest: Miami (Ohio) (Nov. 8), Stetson (Nov. 10), Indiana State (Nov. 17), Santa Clara (Nov. 22), Army (Nov. 24), Cornell (Dec. 1), Delaware (Dec. 7), Bryant (Dec. 9), North Dakota State (Dec. 11), Canisius (Dec. 29)

Toughness scale (1-10): 7 -- Notre Dame's official welcome to the ACC doesn't come in January but rather in the first week of December, when the Irish travel to Iowa for their first ACC/Big Ten Challenge matchup. At any point in the past few years, that would have been a perfectly manageable game, but the ascending Hawkeyes are one of the best defensive teams in their league, and Carver-Hawkeye is close to full, rollicking buy-in once more. The Crossroads Classic draw against Indiana is interesting, if not as intimidating as last season, and the Gotham Classic will match Mike Brey's team with the stifling Ohio State defense in Madison Square Garden just before Christmas break.

PITTSBURGH

Toughest: vs. Cincinnati (Dec. 17 in New York)
Next-toughest: N/A
The rest: Savannah State (Nov. 8), Fresno State (Nov. 12), Howard (Nov. 17), Lehigh (Nov. 20), Legends Classic (Nov. 25-26 in Brooklyn), Duquesne (Nov. 30), Penn State (Dec. 3), Loyola Marymount (Dec. 6), Youngstown State (Dec. 14), Cal Poly (Dec. 21), Albany (Dec. 31)

Toughness scale (1-10): 1. In recent seasons, few coaches have proved as good at gaming the Rating Percentage Index as Jamie Dixon. This is not a criticism; the NCAA's current system is made to be gamed, and, by this point, coaches who don't at least try to use the faulty system to their advantage are leaving potential seed-line improvements on the table. So I'm guessing that, by the end of the season, Pitt's RPI will be in solid shape. (And maybe the new-look ACC will take care of that on its own.) But that aside, this is a straight-up awful basketball schedule. Just … ugh. Cincinnati in Madison Square Garden is the only "marquee" game on the list, and that's a generous application of the term. The Legends Classic features an opening game against Texas Tech and a second-round matchup against either Stanford or Houston. None of those teams is truly awful -- same goes for Penn State on Dec. 3 -- but they're hardly inspiring opponents, either.

SYRACUSE

Toughest: Maui Invitational (Nov. 25-27), Indiana (Dec. 3)
Next-toughest: Villanova (Dec. 28), at St. John's (Dec. 15)
The rest: Cornell (Nov. 8), Fordham (Nov. 12), Colgate (Nov. 16, St. Francis-N.Y. (Nov. 18), Binghamton (Dec. 7), High Point (Dec. 20), Eastern Michigan (Dec. 31)

Toughness scale (1-10): 6 -- This score is awarded mostly for the Maui Invitational, which boasts a typically deep, if not vintage, field (Gonzaga, Baylor, Minnesota, Cal, Dayton, Arkansas, Chaminade). But it's worth noting that Indiana game at the Carrier Dome, which will be more of a test for the young Hoosiers, sure, but is nonetheless a big rematch of Syracuse's dominant Sweet 16 win in March. There are also two fixtures against former Big East foes Villanova and St. John's. The former is an improving, defensive group that took down the Orange in Philly last season; the latter is a road game against a talented but disjointed Red Storm.

VIRGINIA

Toughest: VCU (Nov. 12), Wisconsin (Dec. 4), at Tennessee (Dec. 30)
Next-toughest: Northern Iowa (Dec. 21)
The rest: James Madison (Nov. 8), vs. Davidson (Nov. 16 in Charlotte), Navy (Nov. 19), Liberty (Nov. 23), Hampton (Nov. 26), Corpus Christi Challenge (Nov. 29-30), at Green Bay (Dec. 7), Norfolk State (Dec. 23)

Toughness scale (1-10): 7 -- VCU and Virginia don't have much of a historical basketball rivalry because why would they? But now that Shaka Smart's program has become the state's most notable, it makes sense for Tony Bennett to schedule the Rams, whose pressure defense will be a huge stylistic test for the slow-and-steady Cavaliers in Charlottesville. Wisconsin, which lost to Virginia in Madison last season, won't be that but will be a tough home date in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, and a road trip at Tennessee rounds out the slate. UVa missed the tournament last season mostly thanks to (a) a bad noncon schedule and (b) a bunch of really bad noncon losses. This slate should help nullify both concerns.

VIRGINIA TECH

Toughest: Coaches vs. Cancer (Nov. 22-23), vs. VCU (Dec. 21 at Richmond Coliseum)
Next-toughest: West Virginia (Nov. 12)
The rest: USC Upstate (Nov. 9), Western Carolina (Nov. 15), VMI (Nov. 18), Furman (Nov. 26), Radford (Nov. 29), Winthrop (Dec. 3), UNC Greensboro (Dec. 28), Maryland-Eastern Shore (Dec. 31)

Toughness scale (1-10): 4 -- The Coaches vs. Cancer event at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn features a first-round game against Michigan State and a matchup against either Oklahoma or Seton Hall, and the home date against VCU at the Richmond Coliseum is really more like a road game. And honestly, that's probably good enough for the Hokies right now. Virginia Tech was a bit of a mess in James Johnson's first season, and that was with guard Erick Green, who submitted one of the best, most efficient all-around offensive seasons of the past half decade or so. Without him, it's going to get ugly.

WAKE FOREST

Toughest: Battle 4 Atlantis (Nov. 28-30), at Xavier (Dec. 28)
Next-toughest: Richmond (Dec. 7)
The rest: Colgate (Nov. 8), VMI (Nov. 12), Presbyterian (Nov. 15), Jacksonville (Nov. 18), The Citadel (Nov. 21), Tulane (Dec. 4), St. Bonaventure (Dec. 17), UNC Greensboro (Dec. 21)

Toughness scale (1-10): 5 — Even if Xavier still isn't back to Top 25-level hoops by late December, the Cintas Center is a brutal place to play. But the main feature of this nonconference schedule is Wake's trip to the Bahamas for the Battle 4 Atlantis, where it will play Wiggins and Kansas in the first round (which, good luck with that), followed by USC or Villanova, with Iowa, Tennessee, UTEP and Xavier lurking on the other side of the bracket. This is a crucial year for maligned coach Jeff Bzdelik and his boss, athletic director Ron Wellman. The Deacs absolutely have to show some signs of progress early on.
1. The Presidential Medal of Freedom award for former North Carolina coach Dean Smith was an honor well deserved. The recognition by President Barack Obama, like those before him since President John F. Kennedy created the award, is meant to be for individuals who have set themselves apart in their chosen field, but not always for simply the craft that made them so successful. Smith did so much more than simply coach and win basketball games. He wasn't afraid to be active in the world in which he coached in the 1960s. He set a high example for himself and the program. North Carolina coach Roy Williams said in a statement Thursday, "But more than basketball, it was his social conscience that has left even greater marks on our society and will be paying dividends for generations.'' Smith has been battling memory loss over the past few seasons. No one knows if he'll be able to attend the ceremony at the White House when the date is announced. But let's hope he can make an appearance. His family deserves to see him praised publicly. That's what makes the timing right, so those who love him can celebrate his life's accomplishments with him.

2. The Sun Belt played its conference tournament title game on the Monday of Championship Week last season. But the Sun Belt wanted to have more exposure and a significant platform. The league announced it will host its title game on Selection Sunday on ESPN2. This is great news for exposure for the league. But it could cause another headache for the selection committee and possibly for the winner. The committee can't control when conferences schedule title games but if it were up to them there wouldn't be title games on Sunday. The committee has to deal with too many scenarios on Selection Sunday with winners and losers possibly affecting seeding and bracketing. The Sun Belt has gained exposure, but we'll have to wait and see if it sacrificed its seed by forcing the committee to hold a spot for the winner or a possible at-large team.

3. The Big 12 made the right call in having Kansas and Oklahoma State play on March 1 -- in Stillwater -- in what should be one of the best atmospheres and showdowns next season. KU and OSU should dominate the landscape on that day. This would give the focus to the Big 12 with Andrew Wiggins and Marcus Smart headlining the game. Like it or not, Duke-North Carolina the ensuing weekend usually draws a lot of attention. If KU-OSU were opposite that game there's a good chance it would still be the game of the day based on preseason projections. But this way there is no debate with Kansas and Oklahoma State on a separate weekend.

In high school, I flipped multiple times in my friend’s SUV after a bunch of teenagers thought it would be a good idea to punch the gas on a slick Milwaukee road. We weren’t wearing seatbelts, either.

A few years later, I topped 100 mph with another buddy simply because we wanted to know what it would feel like to hit 100 mph on the freeway.

During college, I piled into a small vehicle with seven other people, even though we knew the driver was completely drunk.

In all of those situations, we could have killed ourselves or someone else.

I don’t want this column to read as though it’s coming from the Pulpit of the Saintly Sportswriter. Because it’s not.

North Carolina star P.J. Hairston has made some dumb decisions. I have too.

But it doesn’t excuse the behavior or end the jeopardy surrounding his future. And it doesn’t minimize the severity of his decisions or mine.

On Sunday, Hairston was suspended indefinitely after being cited for reckless driving near Salisbury, N.C. The team’s leading scorer reportedly hit 93 mph in a 65 mph zone.

He could have killed himself, or someone else.

That was only the latest in a series of incidents that include a June arrest for marijuana possession and driving without a license. A gun was recovered near the vehicle.

But the charges against Hairston were dropped in that case. Still, the university may have to deal with an NCAA investigation because the car Hairston was driving was reportedly rented by convicted felon Haydn Patrick "Fats" Thomas.

The junior wing was also cited for speeding in May.

There’s a mess in Chapel Hill. And Hairston is responsible for it.

[+] 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.
Hairston, who led the program in scoring with 14.6 PPG last season, chose to play a third season for the Tar Heels after considering the NBA draft. At the time, he said he returned because he wanted to “support” Roy Williams.

"I have spent a lot of time with my family over the past couple of days discussing school and my future and I have decided to return to the University of North Carolina for my junior year," said Hairston, per the school’s website. "I value the experiences I have had over the past two years in Chapel Hill, and hope to continue to grow under Coach Roy's guidance. Coach always says 'When you focus on the team during the season, I will support you in the off-season.' This is my way of supporting coach, my teammates and the Tar Heel community. Go Heels!"

Hairston has betrayed Williams, his teammates and the Tar Heel community with this stretch of drama.

Any punishment seems justifiable right now.

Should he be kicked off the team? If he had hit another vehicle on Sunday and seriously injured or killed someone, we wouldn’t even pose the question.

Should he be suspended for the season? The semester? 15 games? Five? That’s up to Williams.

But Williams, who promised severe consequences for Hairston after last month’s arrest, will probably be supported regardless of the punitive measure he chooses.

The last thing any coach needs is a distraction on a team packed with youth, especially if a veteran is responsible for that distraction.

It’s a difficult situation, however, for Williams and other coaches. The “what could have happened” is not “what actually happened.”

Hairston and the other motorists in his vicinity on Sunday were not harmed. Fortunately. And who knows the full truth behind that traffic stop in Durham last month, but charges against Hairston were dropped.

The court of public opinion -- see Twitter -- recommends excommunication from Tar Heels basketball.

And, as I mentioned earlier, Williams has that right.

But I don’t think that’s the proper choice.

I think Hairston needs Tar Heels basketball for reasons beyond basketball.

In the past two months, he’s become a second-round NBA prospect with red flags. This latest event might have cost Hairston millions in earning potential and his professional future.

That NBA dream was simply deferred when he decided to return for his junior season. Now, it might be dead.

If he really came back to “support” Williams and boost Tar Heels basketball, he can prove it now.

It’s time for the standout to drop the ego and do whatever it takes to regain Williams’ trust, if he’s granted that opportunity. It’s time for Hairston to forget about basketball and consider his livelihood. It’s time for Hairston to prove to his teammates that he’s learned from his mistakes.

A lengthy suspension -- barring any additional problems -- would be sufficient. Lengthy could mean 10 games. Could be 15 or even more. Doesn’t matter.

Basketball is secondary.

Whatever it takes to get Hairston’s life back on track. Whatever it takes for Williams to believe in him again.

Perhaps Williams will give Hairston that chance. Perhaps he won’t. He doesn’t have to.

And Hairston has to accept either outcome. He did this to himself.

Hairston’s antics suggest that he’s embraced this fictitious idea of invincibility that often dooms young men on grand stages.

Just a little faster. Just a few puffs. Just one more drink. Just one last party.

A lot of college kids -- grown people, too -- make poor choices every day.

Sometimes we get caught. Sometimes we don’t.

Hairston, however, has to realize that a suspension or jail time could be the least of his worries if he runs (or drives) into more trouble.

He could be eternally sidelined in a cemetery if he’s not careful.
One of the most fascinating side stories during this summer of UNC discontent -- from P.J. Hairston's rental car paper trail to the ongoing scrutiny over an academics scandal that was supposed to be long past the university by now -- is the intense involvement of opposing fans.

NC State die-hards, most notably those at the PackPride message board forums, have been all over it. They started a crowdsourced dig for incriminating evidence in the Hairston case long before receipts linking other rentals with the address of convicted felon Haydn "Fats" Thomas surfaced in the USA Today. Some of what they found was easily dismissed, but some of it genuinely deserved wider scrutiny, and now here we are.

Of course, North Carolina fans have been just as strident in their program's defense. Where Wolfpack fans see a massive conspiratorial cover-up that reaches the upper limits of state government (specifically as it pertains to the academic case, but I saw this argument made when charges against Hairston were dropped), North Carolina fans see a witchhunt conducted by "haters" and "little brothers" that at best exaggerates some otherwise very concerning issues, and at worst invents them from whole cloth, because "they're jealous."

On a personal level, I can't remember the last time I got as many emails about a team from fans who openly root for a rival. My inbox is not a perfect sample, and that is always true of the Internet in general. Many reasonable UNC fans are willing to acknowledge their embarrassment while pointing out what they see as flaws in some accusations. And many NC State fans who take pleasure in the furor would nonetheless prefer their investigatorial comrades didn't make the whole group look so crazy. Alas, the reasonable folks are always drowned out by the vocal minority, and so the inbox keeps filling up, the comment sections keep looking like political news sites, and the White House petitions keep going from silly ideas to genuine realities.

Wait ... White House petition? Huh? Oh yes, dear reader. That actually happened. Titled "Investigate the fraud and misuse of federal funds involving athletics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill," the petition asserts that because UNC has received federal funding for research while also battling an academics scandal in its Afro- and African-American studies department, that a "comprehensive investigation is required to ensure that federal funds are not being misused."

Thus far, the petition has 86 signatures. To receive an official response from the White House, it must accumulate at least 100,000 signees. Only 99,914 to go!

This is all quite hilarious and silly, of course, so silly that you don't need me to explain why. Sports fans never cease to amaze, though. We're always good for a laugh.

That said, I also find the context inspiring. When I visited the forum thread the petition initially grew out of, I expected to read a chorus of approval. Fight the power, go get 'em, all that.

Instead, most posters hated it. "This is a joke, right," asked one. "What the [heck] is wrong with you people? You've finally let [them] push you over the edge," said another. "This is either a very nice troll by the cheats or we have some delusional fans. Please delete. It's embarrassing," pleaded a third. Probably the best response came from a poster who merely left the words "You people" and a little animation of an adorable red-faced smiley banging its head against a tiny wall.

Hope for humanity lives on in these responses. Even among the small sliver of folks who might be most obviously supportive of something like this, there is widespread derision. No one wants to be painted as a bunch of crazies, and everyone recognizes there are limits. Likewise, some of the best comments I've read from North Carolina fans have admitted that the academic scandal was embarrassing, that the Hairston stuff is troubling, and that too-strenuous defenses of any of it risk making the whole fan base look dismissive and blinkered -- a pasting over of flaws with a giant sticker that reads "haters."

In this spirit, I'd like to submit a humble proposal: Everyone take a deep breath. We've now officially reached peak insanity with this White House petition. There's nowhere positive to go from here. Maybe some NC State fans can acknowledge that their relationship with UNC is not exactly the most healthy, even by the typically dissociated fandom standards. Maybe UNC fans can go beyond admitting the program's issues but also recognize that, after so imperiously dominating the local basketball culture in recent years, and so thoroughly scoffing at the Wolfpack at every turn, it is only natural that rival fans would seek to hasten their downfall. Maybe everyone can come together and, instead of arguing about old emails from a faculty report about a years-old academic scandal, agree that this whole pattern is insane. Maybe everyone needs to go to their rooms and count to 100.

Honestly, I'm worried about you guys. I just want to help.

Ugly fallout from an ongoing academic scandal isn't the only bit of North Carolina news worth discussing on this fine summer Monday. The more recent and high-profile mess in Chapel Hill -- the early June arrest of star guard P.J. Hairston with two men, marijuana and a 9 mm handgun outside a GMC Yukon originally rented by a convicted felon -- took a rather major turn this past weekend, too.

As initially reported by Scout.com's Inside Carolina and confirmed by the Durham, N.C., court clerk to ESPN.com, all charges against Hairston stemming from the June 5 arrest have been dropped. Hairston faced charges of misdemeanor marijuana possession and driving without a license. According to the clerk, Hairston completed a drug assessment and provided his current driver's license to the court, after which the state decided to stop pursuing charges.

There are some tricky legal questions left over here. The first is the issue of the handgun, which police have said was found outside the vehicle at the traffic checkpoint. None of the three men in the vehicle that day (Hairston, Carlos Sanford and Miykael Faulcon) have been charged for having the handgun, reasons for which are just as uncertain as whose gun it was in the first place.* It is also not unfair to ask whether the state would have been as deferential in dropping charges were Hairston not a Tar Heels star. When you spend the morning trying to mentally navigate whether a faculty report on widespread academic scandal was changed at the last minute to elide NCAA interest, you begin to see conspiracy -- or, at best, a wink-nudge-Go-Heels -- around every corner.

But here's the real problem for UNC: Hairston's legal woes were never the main concern.

What we wrote in this space last week, when Roy Williams released a statement on Hairston's status, remains true: The biggest concern for North Carolina was not the actual legal incident itself, but the connections to Haydn "Fats" Thomas, the aforementioned convicted felon whose name and address popped in Hertz rental receipts obtained by USA Today in July. Thomas rented the GMC Yukon, but that's not all. On May 13, Hairston was arrested while driving a Chevrolet Camaro rented by Catinia Farrington, whose last known address (and the one used for the rental) matched Thomas' Durham residence on the transaction report.

Thomas has denied knowing Hairston, and insists he is neither tied to an agent nor a UNC booster, but the veracity of those claims as the NCAA will see them remains unclear. Hairston is due in court Aug. 2 to deal with the May speeding citation, and the car he was driving at the time cost Farrington and Thomas a combined total of $5,717.47 during two separate rental periods lasting from March 25 through April 15 and April 25 through June 17, as first reported by USA Today. At the time, when reached for comment, the NCAA said it did not discuss "potential investigations." It is thus unclear whether the NCAA is already actively investigating the situation. Given enforcement precedent, it would be shocking if that were not the case.

In other words, Hairston has been stopped twice on the road in recent months, and both times he was driving new model vehicles rented by someone else. The NCAA will be keen to find out exactly how that coincidence came to be, and what, if any, improper benefits may be involved.

That is the real concern for North Carolina. If charges against Hairston had not been dropped, and the Tar Heels' leading scorer faced a summer and fall full of court dates, it would have been embarrassing to Williams and his program. But a decision to either suspend Hairston or dismiss him from the team -- "serious consequences" already under consideration, as Williams has said -- could have essentially nipped those woes in the bud. The optics would have been unfortunate, but hardly uncommon, and wouldn't have lasted much longer than Williams had the stomach for.

Forget that. Charges or no charges, those cars were still rented to Thomas' address, and that's what will earn the NCAA's attention. For an athletics program already mired in three years of football mess and widespread suspicion over its role in academic scandal, the idea of an NCAA investigation into potential improper benefits provided to its star player by a well-known local felon is the real nightmare. That process would be long and arduous and unforgiving, and carries the possibility -- however remote -- of serious penalties against one of the college game's marquee programs.

Inside the strange NCAA violations enforcement bizarro bubble, whether Hairston was holding marijuana or not holding his driver's license or driving a vehicle with a firearm and ammunition onboard is almost completely ancillary -- a delivery system for something (car rentals) far less serious in the real world, but far more pertinent in the NCAA's purview. What matters is where the cars came from in the first place and why. That question remains as threatening as ever.

*(Update: The lack of a handgun-related charge almost certainly stems from North Carolina state law, where it is not illegal to carry a handgun, even without an ownership permit, provided the gun is not legally "concealed." For more information, see pages 6 and 7 of this PDF, which includes a handy explanation of the law as it governs the transportation of handguns, written by state Attorney General Roy Cooper. Thanks to less-than-polite but nonetheless helpful Twitter follower UNCDubb for the heads up.)

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