CHAPEL HILL — North Carolina coach Roy Williams expressed confidence in late September that P.J. Hairston’s status would be known by now, that his fate would have been determined. That optimism, though, is now gone, replaced by questions and uncertainty about when, or even if, Hairston will play for North Carolina this season.
UNC announced Thursday that Hairston, a junior guard, and Leslie McDonald, the team’s only scholarship senior, would sit out the Tar Heels’ opener Friday night against Oakland. The news isn’t a surprise, given the NCAA has been investigating both players in separate cases involving potential impermissible benefits.
How long those investigations will take, though, and what their outcomes will be, are questions that will linger into the start of the season. Asked why the NCAA’s investigation had taken so long, Williams said, “I can’t answer that,” and he also couldn’t say when he expects answers about Hairston and McDonald.
“Well, you know, it is frustrating,” Williams said. “But it is a long process. We’re trying to do what we can do. The NCAA is trying to do what they can do. But it’s what it is. I’m sure they, they meaning the NCAA, would like to settle all their cases in five minutes, too. We’ve just got to continue working with them and working with the student-athletes and do the best job we can do and see what happens.”
That’s a contrast to what Williams said in late September, before the start of practice. Williams said then, on Sept. 26, that there was “no question” that Hairston’s status would be decided before the start of the season. At that point, Williams had expressed little concern, too, about McDonald.
Now, UNC appears no closer to a resolution with Hairston, and McDonald’s future appears to be murky, too. The question of whether both players received impermissible benefits – and, if so, the monetary value of those benefits – has hung over Hairston and McDonald since the summer.
Police stopped Hairston in May and June while he was driving two rental cars that have been linked to Haydn “Fats” Thomas, a Durham resident and convicted felon. The second of those stops resulted in the arrests of Hairston and two friends, Miykael Faulcon and Carlos Sanford, and all three were charged with misdemeanor marijuana possession. Hairston was also charged with driving without a license, though all of his charges were later dropped.
Trudy Ransom, Faulcon’s mother, told USA Today in a story published earlier this week that Hairston frequently drove rental cars. Ransom told the newspaper that she had been interviewed by the NCAA, and that she told the NCAA that Hairston regularly drove a rented Chevrolet Camaro.
McDonald’s issues likely stem from his association with a designer mouth guard company. He wore a designer mouth guard in at least one game last season, and he appeared in an advertisement for Iceberg Guards, which made the guard McDonald wore.
UNC sent a cease and desist letter to Iceberg, ordering it to stop using McDonald on its website. Williams dismissed the mouth guard issue in late September, but McDonald was among three UNC players – along with Hairston and J.P. Tokoto, a sophomore forward – who sat out the exhibition game last Friday against UNC-Pembroke.
Steve Kirschner, a UNC athletic department spokesman, said Thursday that Hairston and McDonald would sit out the game against Oakland because of a “compliance issue.” Beyond that, the university hasn’t offered any details into the NCAA’s investigation into the players.
Williams, meanwhile, hasn’t recently expressed the same kind of optimism he did in September about a timely resolution to the case. He said on Thursday that in September he said what he believed at the time to be true.
“So I didn’t lie,” he said. “I said exactly what I honest-to-God believed. And that’s what I’m doing in this case. I haven’t lied to you guys. I haven’t tried to con you. I’ve said exactly what I believed.”
Asked whether he remained optimistic that Hairston would play this season, Williams said, “I’m optimistic that we’re going to go 75-0 and we’re only playing 29 games. I’m an optimistic person, so that’s the way I’m going to stay.”
The uncertainty surrounding Hairston and McDonald has cast a pall on the start of the season, and Williams appeared more subdued Thursday than he might have otherwise on the day before the start of the regular season.
Williams described this as the most difficult preseason of his career. Which followed the most difficult offseason of his career. On the court, the absence of Hairston and McDonald creates plenty of problems.
Both players are UNC’s most proven and productive on the perimeter. They are the Tar Heels’ best two returning perimeter shooters, and Hairston led the team in scoring a season ago.
Williams said he would start two point guards Friday night – Nate Britt, a freshman, and Marcus Paige, a sophomore who will start for the first time at shooting guard. Tokoto, who sat out the exhibition game because of a paperwork issue with an NCAA-sanctioned summer league, will start at small forward, and James Michael McAdoo at power forward.
The player who starts at center, Williams said Thursday, joking, “depends on who brings me the best piece of dessert to practice tonight.” Kennedy Meeks, a freshman, and Joel James, a sophomore, have been competing for the starting position there.
Without Hairston and McDonald, Williams said he’d be reliant on Paige, Tokoto and Britt for production on the perimeter. McAdoo, who played exclusively at small forward during UNC’s exhibition last week, is likely to play more on the outside, too.
“I’m a lot more comfortable playing the three (small forward) than I am playing the five (center),” McAdoo said. “But it’s definitely something where coach talked to me earlier in the summer, before anything happened, where I was going to be definitely looking to play a lot more minutes at the three.”
Williams said compensating for the absence of Hairston and McDonald would be “a team thing.”
“We’ve all got to make up the slack,” Williams said.
For how long remains unclear. Williams and his players will enter the season waiting on answers they’d hoped would have arrived by now.
Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter