North Carolina Tar Heels: P.J. Hairston

Video: Hairston hopes to join D-League

January, 10, 2014
Jan 10
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C.J. Brown with the latest on former North Carolina guard P.J. Hairston looking to play in the NBA development league before the NBA draft.
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Fans trickling out of the Dean Smith Center after North Carolina 's third home loss of the season could engage in a lot of blame and finger-pointing.

They should start with Louisville.

Then Michigan State.

And yes, Kentucky, too.

Carolina's trio of wins over ranked teams built a substantial benefit of doubt cache that it continued to tap -- until Wednesday's 63-57 loss to Miami.

[+] EnlargeMcDonald
Andy Mead/Icon SMIThe reinstatement of senior guard Leslie McDonald hasn't paid dividends for the scuffling Tar Heels yet.
The Tar Heels are on empty right now. They're wounded, they're hurt, they're experiencing more doubt now than they did after losses to Belmont and UAB.

"There's no question we're feeling stress," UNC coach Roy Williams said. "You do that at North Carolina, you're not supposed to lose."

The Tar Heels dropped to 0-2 in the ACC for the second straight season and the third time under Williams. The first time it happened, the Heels went on to win the 2009 national championship.

Against the Hurricanes, who entered 0-2 in conference play, there weren't any moments to suggests the Heels are a potential title team.

"We're a little shook, 0-2 in league play is not the way we expected to start," said guard Marcus Paige. "Everyone faces a little adversity here and there. I know we have guys who are not ready to give in and quit, but this group is tough enough to make things happen. We just have to change."

Williams was almost as emotional postgame as he tends to be during season-ending news conferences after a NCAA tournament loss.

"When you go to school here and you coach here as an assistant, and you come back and coach here, it's a feeling of ownership and it's a feeling of pride," Williams said. "And right now I'm not doing a very good job with this basketball team. That's the hardest thing there is that I've ever had to say."

The Heels have shown all along they're a team with a thin margin of error and a thick stack of flaws. Carolina did a good job of masking them for most of the season.

There was a thought that P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald would return and their inconsistencies and deficiencies would go away. Once it was known that only McDonald would be reinstated, nothing has really changed from the North Carolina team of the preseason.

The Tar Heels are still limited from the perimeter. They are still limited when forced to play a half-court game. Miami exposed both of those weaknesses.

The Canes held the Heels to a season-low 23 points in the first half.

Paige, the Heels' leading scorer, struggled for the second straight game shooting 2-of-15 from the field and tied his season low -- set Sunday in the loss to Wake Forest -- with eight points.

McDonald, who is second on the team in 3-pointers, shot 3-of-12 from the field and also had eight points.

Miami played zone the entire game, which the Heels will see again Saturday at No. 2 Syracuse.

Here's the part where a public service announcement on Carolina's 3-0 record against ranked teams this season would have come up a week ago. That was before back-to-back losses against teams expected to finish in the lower tier of the ACC.

Freshman guard Nate Britt said the team hasn't been dwelling on those wins, but they could still serve to help confidence.

"The only thing that we draw off it is that we're capable," Britt said. "Other than that, I think it's a thing of the past. We have to worry about the games ahead of us and how we can best execute against the teams that we have to play in conference."

Paige added that the wins don't define the Heels any more than their losses do.

"The wins aren't going to help you win the game Saturday, the losses aren't going to help you lose the game Saturday," Paige said. "You've got to show up to play every day."

Consistency of play happens to be a lesson the Heels are still trying to learn.
North Carolina found its answer even before Friday’s announcement.

The discovery took place versus Louisville, at Michigan State and against Kentucky. The Tar Heels can still win big without P.J. Hairston.

Ultimately, knowing that question doesn't need to be asked anymore lessened the blow from the university’s decision not to seek Hairston’s reinstatement. The clouds of speculation that have hovered over Chapel Hill since July can move on now.

[+] EnlargeP.J. Hairston
Lance King/Getty ImagesThe Tar Heels now know they will be without P.J. Hairston, but with wins over Kentucky, Michigan State and Louisville they have proven they can win without him.
“It’s already affected our team from a mental standpoint,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “My team has been so resilient.”

They will have to show a bit more strength as center Joel James has a sprained right MCL and could be out up to two weeks. James was injured in the opening minute of Wednesday’s game against Texas. Williams was leaning toward starting sophomore Brice Johnson in his place.

Had Hairston played, he would have immediately been Carolina’s best offensive weapon; the Heels don’t have a player who can create off the dribble the way that he can or shoot from as deep a range as he has.

In his absence, Carolina has been essentially a team of talented role players. They've worked together in their wins because they don’t have the individual star power that can take over a game. As assistant coach C.B. McGrath alluded to last week, the Heels have also bought more into improving on defense.

That’s why there were no signs of a doomsday mood sweeping through the Dean Smith Center before Friday’s practice. The Tar Heels stopped depending on a triumphant return of their best player a long time ago.

“Finding out what the decision was, it’s kind of a relief, it’s kind of sad, too,” sophomore forward J.P. Tokoto said.

It’s a relief because the Heels don’t have to wonder about lineups or roles changing. Marcus Paige will have to continue to be a scorer. James Michael McAdoo and Isaiah Hicks will have to continue to play small forward for some stretches. Freshman guard Nate Britt will continue to have to play major minutes regardless of whether Leslie McDonald supplants him in the starting rotation.

Partial relief came in the form of McDonald on Wednesday when he was cleared by the NCAA and reinstated after sitting out the first nine games while his eligibility issues were ironed out. Although Carolina lost to Texas 86-83 in his debut, he provided four 3-pointers, which ranked him second on the team.

“Having Leslie back out there on wing gave us some size, some shooting, stretched the floor -- what we've been missing this season,” Tokoto said. “Having him back, I feel like our team is much better this year now so definitely glad to have him back.”

It’s sad because the team saw what Hairston endured without the guarantee of gaining his eligibility back. Coach Roy Williams initially suspended him July 28 after a second traffic stop this summer. He did not allow Hairston to be on the media guide, did not allow him to be a team captain and forced him to do extra conditioning just to earn the right to practice.

Williams was near tears at several points during the news conference. He called it, “the lowest moment I’ve gone through in 26 years.”

“It’s what it is and we've got to move on,” Williams said. “But my care for that young man is never going to stop.”

As the investigation process dragged on, the Heels knew this outcome was a possibility even though they remained optimistic of his return.

So even while receiving news they didn't want to hear, there’s no reshaping goals or lowering of expectations. Hairston, who practiced with the Heels on Friday, said as much when he addressed the team.

“His message was we have to come together as a team, we can’t let it affect us,” Tokoto said. “We just have to keep rolling.”

Since the start of the season, really, and maybe a little before, Leslie McDonald and P.J. Hairston have typically been discussed as though they were a package deal.

Understandably so: Both perimeter-oriented UNC shooting guards were watching games from the sideline in casual dress for vague eligibility-related reasons. Both players were practicing but not playing. Save an explanation of NCAA enforcement, "Leslie McDonald and P.J. Hairston" worked. It was the easiest shorthand.

The partnership is now officially dissolved.

[+] EnlargeP.J. Hairston
Grant Halverson/Getty ImagesP.J. Hairston will continue to watch UNC from the sidelines.
On Wednesday, the NCAA declared McDonald reinstated and eligible to play against Texas Wednesday night. It said nothing of Hairston, save that North Carolina had not even submitted a reinstatement request on his behalf. UNC will get the lesser of the two players back in the lineup immediately. Hairston's fate -- and the miniature circus that has accompanied him -- will continue to hang over the Tar Heels.

And even so, it's still great news for North Carolina.

On paper, McDonald's case sounds similar to his teammate's -- caught up, like Hairston, in a swirl of mouth guard brands, Durham holding companies and paper-trail relationships to convicted felon Hadyn "Fats" Thomas. In the end, the NCAA found McDonald accepted "the use of luxury cars, payment of parking tickets, a cellphone and lodging" during the spring and summer of 2013.

But his official penance -- a nine-game suspension and a forfeit (to charity) of about $1,800 -- was no more draconian than the one handed to Oregon's Ben Carter and Dominic Artis for selling their team-provided Nikes just months ago.

McDonald was, in other words, a fairly regular impermissible benefits case. Whatever Hairston's situation amounts to -- whatever it means for his future, or lack thereof, as a UNC Tar Heel -- it is not that.

In the meantime, North Carolina fans can focus on the upside: Their already very good team is immediately going to get better.

The "already very good" might be the biggest surprise of this entire North Carolina ordeal. The Tar Heels were supposed to be crippled by losing Hairston, last season's efficient and versatile leading scorer. Instead, they have knocked off two No. 1 teams (Louisville and Michigan State, the latter at the Breslin Center), handled Kentucky Saturday in Chapel Hill and remained rightfully ranked pretty much all season. They also peppered their upsets with losses to Belmont and UAB. Occasionally, they've been the most thrilling team in the country; they've always been the most confusing.

Little-used sophomore Brice Johnson has become a star; freshman center Kennedy Meeks isn't far behind; and point guard Marcus Paige has been smooth and commanding. The Tar Heels have played excellent defense -- they allow the seventh-fewest points in the country per possession -- they chase down offensive boards and they don't turn the ball over too often.

The one area where UNC has been out and out bad is perimeter shooting: The Tar Heels have made 25 3s all season; Paige accounts for 21 of them. Smartly, UNC shoots the single-lowest rate of 3s to field goal attempts in the country this season -- a whopping 15.9 percent. Credit the Tar Heels for not wasting possessions with shots they can't make, I suppose, but no one wants to be that one-dimensional on offense forever.

McDonald is an immediate panacea. For all of his struggles staying on the floor in what feels like one of those existentially long college basketball careers, McDonald has done one thing repeatedly and with success. That thing is "shooting the basketball." And unlike Hairston, McDonald won't return to a team that has carved its own identity in search of leading-scorer-type touches. He will be a spot-up shooter, a role player, but one whose chief skill is also his team's chief need.

It might not show up against Texas tonight. It might take a little time. But McDonald's return is an unequivocal positive for North Carolina.

Whether it's better or worse or just as good as a joint return with Hairston will have to remain a matter for would and could. He and McDonald are no longer twins in NCAA casual-clothes purgatory, no longer a package deal.

But at this point in UNC's ongoing saga of a season, the Tar Heels will happily take it. One out of two ain't bad.

#FreePJ movement gaining momentum

December, 17, 2013
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It’s hard to tell when #FreePJ picked up the most momentum.

Was it from former North Carolina center John Henson’s Instagram post? Henson, in his second year with the Milwaukee Bucks, displayed a photo of himself wearing a T-shirt mimicking the trademark blue circle NCAA logo and its font -- but replacing it with the word “Scam.”

Was it when proof of an electronic billboard on Interstate 85 displaying the hashtag went viral? Eastbound drivers approaching Durham city limits could view the message alternating with a hospital surgery advertisement.

[+] EnlargeLeslie McDonald, P.J. Hairston
Liz Condo/USA TODAY SportsP.J. Hairston, right, and Leslie McDonald have missed all nine games for UNC while waiting for the NCAA to rule on their eligibility.
It's hard to pinpoint how or when its popularity increased, but Tuesday night, in Cameron Indoor Stadium of all places, confirmed the movement is growing.

Abraham Rubert-Schewel, John Barber, Casey Page and self-confessed Wake Forest fan Robert Coffman brought the “Free P.J.” cause to Duke. During the first half of the Blue Devils' win over Gardner-Webb, Rubert-Schewel held up the poster board and was even picked up by the ESPNU broadcast.

“We were talking about how it was messed up that P.J. wasn’t allowed to play and I was like, ‘What could we do that would be funny?’” said Rubert-Schewel, who graduated from UNC in 2008 but whose father is a Duke professor.

The group didn't write out their message until they reached their seats in Cameron to avoid getting it taken at the door. They drew the letters too big -- that's why they didn't add the hashtag to it -- but the sentiment was the same.

Among those not amused were the security dudes in yellow jackets who quickly confiscated it by simply saying “Sign” and motioning to hand it over. That was a bit more polite than the smaller "Free P.J." sign Barber -- who wore a blue Tar Heels T-shirt -- said he held in his hand until the Duke fan seated behind him took it and ripped it in two.

Ripping a sign won't stop this campaign, though. It will likely continue until the NCAA rules on the status of P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald. The duo has missed each of North Carolina’s nine games this season stemming from possible rules infractions that occurred during the summer.

Back in October, UNC coach Roy Williams initially gave the impression that Hairston’s discipline would be determined before the regular season began. With nearly a third of the season complete, reasonable people believe it’s dragged on long enough.

Texas coach Rick Barnes, who brings the Longhorns to Chapel Hill on Wednesday, knows the feeling. Last season, the NCAA held his star point guard Myck Kabongo in a similar limbo before ruling on his case in late December.

“It’s tough, believe me, it’s tougher than you can imagine, and I know what Roy is going through and it’s not a lot of fun,” said Barnes.

“The worst part is, again, you’re at the mercy of the NCAA," Barnes added. Whenever they get to it, then you’ll have your answer.”

Barnes said the uncertainty on when Kabongo would return weighed heavily on the team and the player last season. The NCAA eventually announced on Dec. 19, 2012 that Kabongo would miss the entire season. Texas appealed the initial ruling and got it amended to 23 games.

“The emotional stress that it put on him, I can’t even begin to tell you,” Barnes said. “It weighed on him heavily. I’m sure it is for the Carolina players right now because they’re there like we were a year ago.”

While the Longhorns waited to hear Kabongo’s fate, Barnes said it was like having two different teams: the squad he had in practice with Kabongo and the squad he took to games without him. Barnes said when Kabongo did return for the final 11 games, Kabongo tried to overcompensate for the time he missed.

“I know what those guys are going through, and it’s tough because, again, you’re dealing with kids here and they don’t understand it, I can assure you of that,” Barnes said. “They don’t understand why it’s taking so long to get an answer.”

Neither do many Carolina fans. That’s why until then, #FreePJ sightings will only get more frequent.

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- North Carolina coach Roy Williams refused to acknowledge it.

But he didn't have to.

The signs were all there in Carolina's 82-77 victory against No. 11 Kentucky.

The No. 18 Tar Heels have figured things out. They're no longer a team struggling in new roles because they were stretched outside of their collective comfort zones.

They've settled down now to the point where saying Carolina is playing short-handed even seems like a misnomer. P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald didn't dress for the ninth time this season, and it didn't seem to matter.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Paige, Dominique Hawkins
AP Photo/Gerry BroomeMarcus Paige has come a long way from his pass-first days as a freshman last season.
"I don't know if we've figured it out like we're clicking like no other right now, but guys do understand their roles better," sophomore guard Marcus Paige said. "We know that we're going to have to play without them until they're ruled eligible or whatever. We've just decided that this is our squad that we're rolling with for the time being."

The Heels have plenty of flaws. Paige is their only consistent 3-point shooter. They're atrocious from the free throw line. They haven't had anyone claim the center spot. But they have learned what their strengths are.

Paige is the face of the successful transitions. As a freshman last season, he was asked only to be a distributor at point guard. With Hairston out, he has moved to shooting guard and has become the Heels' leading scorer.

Early in the season, it wasn't natural for Paige to hunt for his own shot. It's safe to say he has learned now, scoring 21 of his game-high 23 points in the second half and shooting 6-of-8 from the floor.

One of his biggest baskets of the game came while going right at UK center Willie Cauley-Stein, who had five blocked shots. Paige completed a teardrop over the 7-footer's outstretched arm to give Carolina a 70-65 lead with 1 minute, 41 seconds left, which kept it at least a two-possession lead until 7 seconds remained.

"He made two unbelievable shots," Williams said. "That little floater on the baseline -- I'm always kiddingly harping on, I don't like floaters until you show me you can make them, and he's coming pretty doggone close."

Junior James Michael McAdoo is coming close to erasing worries at small forward. His transition from power forward to reserve duty at the 3 had made him pretty ineffective offensively. He had a four-game stretch in which he didn't reach double figures in scoring and shot just 29.2 percent from the floor.

McAdoo played arguably his best game of the season with 20 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists. He has put up bigger numbers against lesser competition, but his performance caused Wildcats coach John Calipari to say, "McAdoo made a statement."

"Games like today are huge; it feels a lot better," McAdoo said. "If we would have won and I had zero points, zero rebounds, I'd still be happy, but as a human being I want to be able to contribute to the team."

McAdoo got the ball in positions where he could score. Over and over he'd take passes from the wing and aggressively drive to the basket. That led to fouls and was the reason he tied his season high with 19 free throw attempts.

UK forward James Young said McAdoo's offensive outburst took him a bit by surprise, given his recent struggles.

"In the second half, I played most, if not all, my minutes at the 3," McAdoo said. "To be able to log those minutes, it's definitely huge, not only personally, but for the team moving forward."

[+] EnlargeJ.P. Tokoto
AP Photo/Gerry BroomeJ.P. Tokoto has adapted well to playing more minutes and playing more as a shooting guard.
J.P. Tokoto teamed with McAdoo to carry the Heels in the first half, with 11 of his 15 points. Tokoto eased into playing more at shooting guard, which, along with McAdoo at small forward, has allowed the Heels to play a bigger lineup, usually with Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks rounding out the five.

"Guys are accepting the challenge of stepping up and producing when they get the chance," Paige said. "J.P.'s playing a lot more minutes this year as a starter, and he's really producing. It's cool to see our team grow and accept the fact that we're going to have to all step up as a group."

Williams was concerned about how Carolina would perform against the Wildcats after a lackluster practice Friday. It was just the second full practice of the week due to final exams changing players' schedules.

Passes floated to areas with no one waiting to receive them. Man-to-man defensive assignments were missed, and their focus was distant. It was the complete opposite of their practice before the Michigan State game.

Freshman guard Nate Britt attributed it to players coming off the mental fatigue of final exams.

"Coach might have been worried, because he felt like the intensity wasn't there," Britt said. "But I feel like the players, we were fine mentally coming into the game."

Isn't that a sign of a good team?

Williams still says the Tar Heels have a ways to go. But after beating their third ranked team this season -- and shooting a combined 55.1 percent in the second half of those three games -- he has to be flashing a Cheshire grin.

"We're such a young group, and sometimes an immature group," Williams said. "You don't want to get them too fat and happy."

Playing the 'what if' game with Heels

December, 11, 2013
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"What if...?" seems to be a big question from North Carolina fans this season, especially after beating then-No. 3 Louisville and then-No. 1 Michigan State. James Michael McAdoo even hinted at it Saturday after the win over UNCG.

What if P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald were actually playing on this team? Would the Tar Heels be undefeated? Would they be ranked No. 1 on the strength of the two best wins any team has on its resume?

[+] EnlargeP.J. Hairston
Lance King/Getty ImagesWithout the shooting of P.J. Hairston, the Heels have been taking and making a historically low amount of perimeter shots this season.
There’s no way to truly quantify what the absence of Hairston and McDonald has meant, but let’s try anyway.

I think it’s safe to say the Tar Heels would be making more perimeter shots. The duo accounted for nearly half (131) of the 272 3-pointers the team attempted last season. With Marcus Paige the principle 3-point shooter this season, the Heels’ makes from behind the arc have decreased by more than 50 percent.

UNC made 7.6 3-pointers per game last season, thanks in part to Hairston and McDonald. Without them, it’s down to just 2.9 makes per game this season, which ranks last among all 345 NCAA Division I schools.

Paige accounts for 87 percent of UNC's 3-pointers, making 20 of the team’s 23 shots, which is the highest in Division I by far. The rest of the Heels have combined to shoot 3-for-26 from 3-point range.

With fewer shooters, needless to say the Heels are making a lower percentage behind the arc compared to last season, too. Hairston and McDonald helped Carolina shoot 37.6 percent from 3-point range last year. That’s dipped to 29.9 percent this season, which would easily be the worst mark in school history if it continues. (The previous low for a season was 32.8 percent in 2010-11.)

And how’s this for historic: Being so limited from the perimeter, the Heels' percent of 3-point attempts this season mirrors the 1982-83 season when they played with an experimental arc. Just 14 percent of UNC’s shot attempts came from outside 30 years ago. This season they’ve attempted just 16 percent of their shots from 3-point range, compared to 31 percent of all field-goal attempts last season.

The overwhelming result of Hairston and McDonald’s absence has led to a renewed presence of Carolina’s post game. Forwards Brice Johnson and McAdoo are the team’s second- and third-leading scorers, both averaging slightly more than 13 points per game.

Freshman center Kennedy Meeks has established himself as a reliable post scorer off the bench, contributing 8.5 points per game.

“That’s big for our team when we have multiple players that can score inside,” Paige said. “It takes some pressure off our perimeter shooters. We don’t have to rely so much on me hitting a 3 or anything like that. So to keep getting them to produce the way they are is great for our team.”

Carolina has shot 47.8 percent from the floor, which is its highest mark since the 2009 national championship team shot 48 percent. That increase is due to the fact that the Heels have scored 45 percent of their points this season in the paint.

Their inside game will have to continue to compensate while playing the waiting game on Hairston and McDonald’s eligibility status. No "what ifs" about it.

Thought of the week: Halfcourt needs work

December, 2, 2013
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North Carolina has to change its template for scoring in halfcourt sets.

Sunday’s loss to UAB doesn’t retroactively make the Tar Heels' win over Louisville last week a fluke. And their loss to the Blazers definitely was not a fluke, either. The difference was the Cardinals allowed the Heels to run, which they can do well. The Blazers dared the Heels to execute in the halfcourt, which they don’t do well.

As embarrassing as it was for the Heels to be outrebounded 52-37, they still outscored the Blazers 13-12 in second-chance points. That’s why it was UAB coach Jerod Haase’s defensive game plan that provided the blueprint to beating North Carolina.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Paige
Kelly Lambert/USA TODAY SportsUAB focused its defensive attention on Marcus Paige and the UNC halfcourt offense suffered without a consistent perimeter threat to spread the floor.
It started with how the Blazers defended leading scorer Marcus Paige. He was the only UNC player they respected on the perimeter, and they guarded him as such. The strategy was very effective in the first half, when Paige was just 1-of-4 from the floor.

Part of that was on Paige, who seemed content not to hunt for his shot in the first half. He was much more assertive in the second half, making 5-of-12 attempts and finishing with 13 points.

In this age of no hand-checking, there’s really no excuse for the Heels attempting a season-low 11 free throws. Over their previous three games, they had averaged 41 attempts per contest from the line. But UAB managed to take the aggression out of Carolina.

Nate Britt, Luke Davis and J.P. Tokoto were all free to take as many jumpers as they chose when they had the ball on the perimeter. Instead, their would-be defenders just clogged the lane and prevented the Heels' post players from establishing position.

Until another Carolina player not named Paige can show some consistency making shots from outside -- or until P.J. Hairston or Leslie McDonald rejoin the lineup -- the Heels are likely to see more of the same from opponents, starting Tuesday at Michigan State.

The way Carolina can change that blueprint is by staying aggressive on offense. Too many times against the Blazers they settled for perimeter shots instead of driving to the basket.

Britt was a prime example. After consistently getting to the rim against Louisville, he was just 0-of-3, including a missed 3-pointer, against UAB.

Even James Michael McAdoo, who played much of the game at small forward, was lured into taking bad perimeter shots en route to a 3-of-13 performance that included missing all three attempts from behind the arc. That moved him to 0-for-5 from 3-point range on the season.

The Heels played well enough defensively to win, holding the Blazers to 30 percent shooting from the floor. But in a rarity during the Roy Williams era, the offense failed them against the Blazers. And unless they find a way to jump start it, Sunday’s outcome could be a recurring theme this season.

McAdoo finding his way at small forward

November, 29, 2013
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North Carolina forward James Michael McAdoo finds himself in the same position, figuratively speaking, as he was toward the end of last season. He was asked to play center, a position he had little comfort in playing, last season when the Tar Heels decided a four-guard lineup put their best players on the floor at once.

As long as North Carolina has limited depth on the wing with its current personnel, McAdoo will be asked to play small forward. That another position in which he's not as comfortable, but he is forced to be the Tar Heels’ second option there behind J.P. Tokoto.

[+] EnlargeMichael McAdoo
Liz Condo/USA TODAY SportsJames Michael McAdoo isn't as effective offensively when he moves to small forward.
“We don’t have enough wing players right now to play,” coach Roy Williams said. “We have to get James Michael to spend quite a bit of time at 3.”

McAdoo has clearly shown he’s best when playing power forward operating beside a center that can score in the post. That’s why the lineup with Brice Johnson at center and McAdoo at power forward has been so successful this season. An opponent’s frontcourt can’t focus on stopping McAdoo with Johnson also a proven scorer.

It almost seems the opposite when McAdoo is playing small forward, as opponents can largely ignore him because he’s not as likely to hurt them scoring.

McAdoo’s skill set, particularly in the half-court offense, hasn’t translated to much success at small forward. He's not great at creating his own shot off the dribble. One NBA scout attending UNC’s win over Louisville said McAdoo was “in no-man’s land” when playing small forward.

On one hand, McAdoo has done a much better job taking care of the ball this season. He’s had just seven turnovers through five games. Last season he averaged 2.6 turnovers per game and led the team with 96 overall.

But turnovers aren’t the only numbers that are dropping. If last weekend’s games were any indication, McAdoo’s scoring and rebounding might decline as well when he’s forced to play major minutes at small forward.

McAdoo entered the Hall of Fame Tournament leading the team with 19.7 points and 8.7 rebounds. Against Richmond and Louisville, he combined to just score 18 points and grabbed six total rebounds.

So far, Williams isn’t deterred by using McAdoo at small forward, as it would allow the Heels to go bigger.

“A pretty good lineup for us could be J.P. at the 2 with Marcus [Paige] at 1 and James Michael at 3,” Williams said.

As long as P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald are out, McAdoo will have plenty more chances to play small forward. He just has to find a better way to adapt to it.

Marcus Paige by the numbers

November, 27, 2013
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It seems like just yesterday when North Carolina guard Marcus Paige expressed an uneasiness over making the transition to shooting guard. He was so conditioned to creating for others that the mentality to look for his own shots didn’t come naturally.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Paige
Zumapress/Icon SMI
Five games later, Paige has thrust himself into a different stratosphere -- both nationally and among Tar Heels historically.

He’s currently leading the team with 22.4 ppg. That's comparable to others mentioned as national-player-of-the-year candidates like Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart (21.0), Louisville’s Russ Smith (20.2), Kentucky’s Julius Randle (19.8), Arizona State’s Jahii Carson (23.0) and Duke’s Jabari Parker (23.0).

That also would put Paige on a short list of Tar Heels who have averaged 20 or more points a game since 1970:

Phil Ford (20.8 ppg in 1977-78); Michael Jordan (20.0 ppg in 1982-83); Brad Daugherty (20.2 ppg in 1985-86); Hubert Davis (21.4 ppg in 1991-92); Antawn Jamison (22.2 ppg in 1997-98); Joseph Forte (20.9 ppg in 2000-01), Rashad McCants (20.0 ppg 2003-04) and Tyler Hansbrough (22.6 ppg in 2007-08 and 20.7 in 2008-09).

Paige is shooting 53.1 percent from 3-point range, which ranked him 29th nationally as of Monday's NCAA statistics. The next closest national-player-of-the-year candidate is Creighton’s Doug McDermott, who is tied for 38th at 50 percent.

If Paige continues at this rate, he would shatter the Carolina single-season record of 49.6 percent set by Dante Calabria in 1994-95. The difference is Calabria was a spot-up shooter who benefited from Jerry Stackhouse and Rasheed Wallace drawing most of the defense's attention.

Paige is shooting 93.1 percent from the free-throw line, which was tied for 40th nationally entering the week. Again, he’d set a new school standard if he keeps it up, besting Shammond Williams’ single-season record of 91.1 percent during the 1997-98 season.

Paige is also shooting 53.1 percent from the field, which for a guard is great, but it doesn’t compare with post players.

Of course some, if not all, of Paige’s current averages will decrease once teams make him the focal point of their game plans.

But the irony here is if Carolina had its full roster, and Paige were strictly playing point guard, he wouldn’t be posting anywhere near his scoring average. That’s what makes his transformation in such a short amount of time so impressive.

Paige has played at such a high level that it would be hard to argue that he’s not the best player on the team even when P.J. Hairston came back.

Improving Johnson fits best off bench

November, 26, 2013
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It is evident now that forward Brice Johnson is North Carolina’s best and most consistent scoring option in the post. Johnson has scored double figures in each of the Tar Heels five games to open the season and is third on the team in scoring (14.6 points per game).

Johnson also has surpassed junior forward James Michael McAdoo as the team’s leading rebounder, averaging 7.2 boards per game. Asked if he’d finally figured things out, Johnson said the light switch “has been on.”

“I figured it out after the end of the season last year, I was like, ‘This has to change,’ my level of play has to go up,” Johnson said.

[+] EnlargeBrice Johnson
MCT via Getty ImagesSophomore Brice Johnson leads the Tar Heels in rebounding and is third in scoring.
Johnson said he’s playing harder even though he still could be more consistent boxing out on shots, adding “I didn’t box out last year. I still don’t do it now sometimes but I do it every now and then.”

His biggest area of improvement could be on defense. Johnson had 19 blocks all of last season; he’s already leading the Heels with seven this season.

“The transition from high school ... it’s a lot harder to block shots in the college game, so I’ve been learning how to do that a lot better,” Johnson said.

Johnson is fifth on the team in minutes played. The sophomore, who is shooting 65 percent from the field, is still not in the starting lineup.

Nor should he be.

And here are two reasons why:

Sophomore center Joel James, who has started every game so far, is quietly taking small but crucial steps in his development. If he ever reaches his potential, it will be because of the minutes he’s getting now.

Coach Roy Williams ultimately hasn’t played James during any game's deciding minutes. He has mostly gone with Johnson. Williams has used a number of players, including Wade Moody, in the first half of games just to steal minutes. In the case of James he’s getting experience for the future.

James is still so new to basketball he admitted after "Late Night with Roy" that he’s still uncomfortable playing in front of crowds.

If we are to believe what we saw Sunday from center Kennedy Meeks was a sign of things to come and not a one-game aberration, he’ll progress to the point where he becomes the starting center by the end of the regular season.

Aside from the Richmond game, Meeks has improved from the beginning of the season to now. Conditioning has not been a factor for the 6-foot-9 freshman, who is listed at 290 pounds, and considering he just played 24 minutes against a running team like Louisville it’s not likely to be at all.

Meeks’ near triple double against the Cardinals (13 points, 12 rebounds, seven assists) established a new expectation. Meeks believes he can be one of the players who helps make up for the absence of P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald.

“This game will set the tone for almost the rest of the season,” Meeks said. “Without P.J. and Leslie of course -- that’s two players that could really help us a lot -- but like Coach said, we have to keep moving on and I think we’ll be good for the rest of this year.”

Heels, Cardinals set for matchup

November, 23, 2013
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UNCASVILLE, Conn. – There’s no convincing Louisville players that they’re not about to face an elite North Carolina squad at 1 p.m. Sunday at Mohegan Sun Arena.

Most of the third-ranked Cardinals said they had not seen the Tar Heels play this season until they watched the Heels beat Richmond in Saturday's first game of the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament. Despite Carolina being a shell of the team ranked No. 12 in the preseason, the Cardinals are still showing respect for the name.

Maybe a tad too much respect considering P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald did not make the trip for UNC.

“We know they’re the real deal,” Louisville’s Luke Hancock said. “It’s always going to be Carolina, it’s a top program. Coach [Roy] Williams is going to have them ready to play.”

When the schedule was released, a potential Louisville-Carolina matchup looked to be the first real test for both teams. The reality is it will be more of a barometer for the Tar Heels.

With no word on the status of Hairston and McDonald, whose eligibility is under review by the school and NCAA, Carolina will be playing with its current rotation for the foreseeable future. It’s about to hit a rough five-game stretch that includes a Dec. 4 trip to No. 1 Michigan State and a Dec. 14 home date against No. 4 Kentucky.

“We’re definitely going to try to show up -- well, we will show up -- and compete like we did today,” UNC forward James Michael McAdoo said after Saturday's 82-72 victory over the Spiders. “We’ll start focusing on games like this which are definitely huge games for us going into conference play.”

The Cardinals had the kind of win against Fairfield that coach Rick Pitino can use to grab his team's attention. After winning their first four games by an average of nearly 34 points, Pitino called their 71-57 victory on Saturday their “poorest game of the season.” He even hinted that the Cardinals might have been looking ahead to UNC.

Louisville’s postgame locker room reflected his sentiment. Players sat slumped into their lockers, the entire room void of the laughter and energy usually associated with winning. On the contrary, the Cardinals had the look and feel of a group that had just lost.

“It’s eye-opening for us just to not play as well as we want,” Hancock said. “This type of effort will lose against a lot of teams.”

Forward Montrezl Harrell, who led Louisville with 14 points and 12 rebounds, said the Cardinals played like they didn’t respect Fairfield, and it showed early.

“We should have come out and been prepared to play from the very beginning,” Harrell said. “But we weren’t and got burned for it in the first half. Playing against a team like North Carolina, if we start off like that we can really get burned and not be able to bounce back.”

Pitino even elevated the praise for the Heels, after watching his team shoot just 38 percent and his starting backcourt of Russ Smith and Chris Jones commit a combined eight turnovers.

He said North Carolina's size could give the Cardinals problems, especially with the Heels' offensive rebounding.

“You’re going to see a close game [on Sunday] -- if we don’t get blown out,” Pitino said. “If we play this way, there won’t even be a game.”

Just two games ago, Carolina players were thinking they might not belong on a court with Louisville after struggling to a 62-54 win over Holy Cross. McAdoo joked afterward that if the Heels played that poorly against the Cardinals, all he could do was “hope that Louisville played bad, too.”

The bad news for the Heels is Louisville might have gotten that one out of the way.

“We’ll come back,” Pitino said. “I don’t expect us to have two bad games in a row.”

Heels making unconventional the norm

November, 23, 2013
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UNCASVILLE, Conn. -- Erase for a minute everything you’re used to assuming about a North Carolina basketball team under coach Roy Williams.

The No. 24 Tar Heels are not that team.

This team can’t impose its pace and use the fast break to outrun teams. It can’t merely overpower an opponent on sheer talent. It will have to grind out wins much in the fashion of Saturday's 82-72 victory over Richmond in the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament at the Mohegan Sun Arena.

North Carolina (3-1) trailed for much of the first half, and its lead didn’t reach double digits until 1:35 remained in the game.

Because P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald have yet to suit up for the Heels, every game could present something new. Williams agreed it’s probably the least conventional team he’s coached since arriving in Chapel Hill.

“By this time of the year most times, it’s fairly close to a set lineup,” Williams said.

Nothing is set this season.

Not the lineups.

Not even the playing style.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Paige
AP Photo/Michael DwyerMarcus Paige made a career-high six 3-pointers and played point guard for much of the victory over Richmond.
The Tar Heels were so unpredictable against the Spiders that sophomore Marcus Paige, who made a career-high six 3-pointers and set a career high with 26 points, even played point guard.

Paige is a point guard, but he’s had to play shooting guard with their current roster situation. When he moved back to point for a span against Richmond, forward J.P. Tokoto played shooting guard for the first time this season.

“I played more minutes at point guard in this game than I probably did all year so far,” Paige said. "That was a little different."

Williams generally avoids playing zone defense. But Spiders guard Cedrick Lindsay couldn’t be defended in man-to-man as he scored a career-high 29 points against the Heels.

Lindsay almost single-handedly forced the Heels to unveil a 1-2-2 zone for stretches throughout the game as he was successful driving the lane for baskets. After this game, zone isn’t likely to be a one-time occurrence for Carolina either.

“We have been working more on the zone with this team than any team I’ve ever had,” Williams said. “We gave up some straight drives to the basket, which the zone is supposed to stop that kind of stuff. We’ve got to get a lot better at it, but we’ll play it some more -- there’s no question.”

The game ventured into uncharted territory for senior guard Wade Moody, a walk-on who had played a total of 60 seconds through the first three games. He entered the game with four minutes left in the first half and played three minutes.

“Wade can shoot the ball,” Williams said. “I wanted to give him some time today. You never can tell; he may get more time later on.”

Forward Brice Johnson is making his case for more time -- whether it comes at center or power forward. He came off the bench to record career highs with 24 points and 12 rebounds, his first double-double.

In the past three games, Johnson has played center with James Michael McAdoo at power forward during the deciding stretches. It gives the Heels their best scoring options in the frontcourt while Kennedy Meeks and Joel James are still developing.

“I did it last year, so it’s whatever they need,” Johnson said. “I might now be able to guard the biggest guy, but I’ve added a little bit of weight and a little bit of strength so I can hold my own now.”

What the Tar Heels lack in flash, they make up with toughness. Williams said he wanted to see how they would bounce back from their first loss.

They showed their resilience from the free throw line after missing 26 free throws in the loss to Belmont. Carolina responded against Richmond by shooting 70 percent from the line. They showed it during the game after falling behind by nine in the first half but taking a 36-33 lead into halftime.

“With North Carolina basketball, you’ve got five guys on the court that are all capable of going off for big games,” McAdoo said. “I think that’s really what you just saw today -- them trying to take certain things away and other guys stepping up, which is huge, definitely, as the season goes on.”

Roy Williams news conference notes

November, 21, 2013
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UNC coach Roy Williams addressed the media before the Tar Heels travel to Uncasville, Conn., for the Hall of Fame tipoff this weekend.

[+] EnlargeRoy Williams
Denny Medley/USA TODAY SportsRoy Williams wasn't pleased with the Tar Heels' defensive effort against Belmont.
The Tar Heels face Richmond on Saturday and either Fairfield or No. 3 Louisville on Sunday.

Some topics Williams covered:

  • P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald will not travel with the team. The duo has yet to play this season while awaiting the NCAA to rule on their eligibility.
  • The Heels took a step forward offensively against Belmont from their sluggish performance against Holy Cross, but Williams said they took a step back defensively, allowing the Bruins to shoot 40 percent from the 3-point range. “I wasn’t pleased at all, and when I looked at the tape, it was even worse,” Williams said. “It’s a strangeness to it because I thought we did make some great strides and were much better offensively against Belmont, but defensively we were not there.
  • Williams said their 22-for-48 free throw performance will go down as one of the two worst of his coaching career. It was particularly perplexing because both James Michael McAdoo and J.P. Tokoto had shot better than 80 percent from the line during a recent practice. McAdoo was 11 of 19 and Tokoto 4 of 16 in the loss to Belmont. “If two guys make 81 and 84 percent on their own, I can’t simulate what their thought process is in a game,” Williams said. “We’ve got to be able to handle that part of it. We do shoot them, more than likely we’re going to shoot more.”
  • Richmond has made only 17 total 3-pointers this season and shot 18.7 percent from behind the arc. (Belmont had made only 15 overall entering Sunday’s game before duplicating that number and shooting 40 percent from 3-point range against the Heels.) Williams said he watched half of the Spiders win over Belmont on Wednesday after returning from the Medal of Freedom ceremony at the White House, whose honorees included Dean Smith.“It should get our guys' attention the team that beat us lost to the guys we’re playing next,” Williams said. Williams later “knocked on wood” first tapping his desk then his head when adding that the Spiders, “haven’t shot it great from the 3-point line yet.”
  • Freshman forward Isaiah Hicks logged just two minutes against Belmont, which happened in part because of matchup problems, but Williams said that will change. “It was the only thing at the end of the game I was mad at myself about,” Williams said. “I should have given him more opportunities. We’re going to give him more opportunities.”

Itsy-bitsy issue with Hall of Fame matchup

November, 21, 2013
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We have given Richmond fodder for this weekend.

North Carolina has given the Spiders reason to believe.

No one is giving Fairfield a shot against Louisville in the Hall of Fame Classic at the Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, Conn. So pencil in the Cardinals into Sunday's championship game.

But we have anticipated a Louisville-North Carolina matchup for the title. And we are not alone. The organizers planned this accordingly, selling the event as a major showdown between two Hall of Fame coaches and storied programs.

[+] EnlargeChris Mooney
AP Photo/John MinchilloCoach Chris Mooney and the Richmond Spiders could be bracket busters in the Hall of Fame Classic.
And then the Tar Heels started to implode, losing P.J. Hairston over the summer and then again into the fall as the NCAA and the school investigate possible extra benefits. Toss in Leslie McDonald for similar reasons and the Tar Heels are now officially less than whole. It showed when they struggled with Holy Cross and lost at home to a traditionally pesky -- but not as strong as in the past -- Belmont.

Oh, and Richmond beat Belmont earlier this season. Could the Spiders spoil this planned matchup?

Of course.

"I've noticed that," Richmond coach Chris Mooney said of the hype for Louisville-North Carolina any time the Hall of Fame Classic bracket is posted on television or online. "Hopefully we can [upset the plans]. It's a huge opportunity for us. We are pretty good, I think."

Here's why:

The Spiders, two years removed from a Sweet 16 appearance, have the type of point guard they need under Mooney and must have to beat out a player like North Carolina's Marcus Paige. Cedrick Lindsay is averaging 19 points and has nearly as many steals (7) as turnovers (8) in four games.

The Spiders have defended well, save the only loss, to Minnesota. Richmond didn't give up 3s to Belmont (4-of-18); North Carolina did (Belmont was 15-of-37).

The issue for Richmond is its own perimeter shooting.

"We have shot horribly so far [9-for-65 in the first three games, 8-of-26 against zone against Hofstra]," Mooney said. "We are a pretty good shooting team, so those numbers will go up, of course."

They must if the Spiders are to pull off the upset. The frontcourt is still green and James Michael McAdoo has been one of the few strengths for the Tar Heels. This is a wounded UNC team that can't afford to be bruised again so soon after the Belmont loss. UNC sees the need to play Louisville as well, especially with Michigan State in East Lansing, Mich., and Kentucky at home within the next few weeks.

The Spiders have an opportunity in an Atlantic 10 that will be led by VCU, UMass and Saint Louis. There is room for a fourth challenger. La Salle has struggled of late. Richmond can seize the spotlight with a win this weekend. The chance is at hand.

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