New-look UNC experiments in final exhibition

acarter@newsobserver.comNovember 1, 2013 

— Under normal circumstances, North Carolina coach Roy Williams by now might have decided on some important things. Like a starting lineup, or an early-season rotation.

But these are hardly routine times for the Tar Heels, who played their final exhibition of the season on Friday night against UNC Pembroke.

“It’s just been different this year,” Brice Johnson, the sophomore forward, said after North Carolina’s 82-63 victory at the Smith Center. “Just been a lot of different things happening this year, that’s all.”

Johnson could have been alluding to any number of things: the off-season trail of trouble that followed P.J. Hairston, the team’s junior guard and leading returning scorer; or the separate issue that has the status of Leslie McDonald, a senior guard, in doubt.

North Carolina played without its three best wing players on Friday – and in some respects, its only three wing players. Hairston, McDonald and J.P. Tokoto, sophomore forward, wore suits and watched from the bench.

Their absence forced Williams to start two point guards, Marcus Paige and Nate Britt, the freshman, and a power forward, James Michael McAdoo, at small forward, which is a position he had never played before.

McAdoo described playing small forward as “a lot of fun” but admitted it comes with a set of new challenges. He might need to get used to it – at least until North Carolina has its full complement of players.

“The biggest issues are probably just getting to a spot on offense where I’m comfortable at scoring,” said McAdoo, who led the Tar Heels with 19 points and 10 rebounds. “And usually that has been in the low post, but now I’m being able to be on the perimeter, just trying to create and get other people involved.

“And on the defensive end, games like today I’m guarding guys like 6-feet tall. It’s really tough – moving my feet.”

At one point in the second half, McAdoo found himself open behind the 3-point line. He had never attempted a 3-pointer in his first two seasons, but he released a shot from the left wing that bounced off the rim.

The abnormal was normal for the Tar Heels, who most often used a fivesome that consisted of two small guys – Paige and Britt – and three players who stand at least 6-foot-8.

Both McAdoo and Isaiah Hicks, a 6-foot-8 freshman, shared time at small forward. Johnson played primarily power forward, while fellow sophomore Joel James, junior Desmond Hubert and freshman Kennedy Meeks all split time at center, which has emerged as the most wide-open position on the team entering the season.

“I’m not close to a set lineup by any means,” Williams said.

Among North Carolina’s post players, Johnson was the most effective rebounder with 11, but he made just four of his 11 field goal attempts. Meeks made four of his five attempts from the field and finished with 11 points in 13 minutes, but didn’t rebound to Williams’ liking during the first half.

“If you are going to play the five, you have to rebound the ball and be a factor around the rim,” Williams said.

He still has yet to identify the player who will do those things most consistently. Even so, Williams appreciated certain aspects of his team’s final exhibition.

The Tar Heels scored 42 points in the paint, and rebounded 21 of their 36 missed shots. North Carolina also put the game away in the second half after UNC-Pembroke, which challenged N.C. State earlier this week, cut its 19-point halftime deficit to six with about nine minutes to play.

Still, there is more uncertainty surrounding the Tar Heels than is normally the case this time of year. Tokoto, who sat out because of a paperwork issue related to an NCAA-sanctioned summer league he played in, will be eligible for North Carolina’s first game next Friday against Oakland.

It remains unknown, though, when Hairston and McDonald will play. Hairston’s case stems from his use of rental cars tied to a convicted felon, while McDonald’s eligibility could have been affected by his use of a designer mouth guard last season, and his appearance in an ad promoting the mouth guard company Iceberg Guards.

“You’ve got to go through the process, and we’ve understood that since Day 1,” Williams said of Hairston and McDonald. “I think that there’s reason that this hasn’t been cleared up yet, so we’ve just got to wait until the process is finished.”

Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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