CHAPEL HILL — At last, North Carolina is beginning to find certainty amid the uncertainty. The Tar Heels understand their reality now: That there is no resolution for P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald, two players at the center of NCAA investigations, and there might not be for a while.
“It’s what it is,” Roy Williams, the UNC coach, said Thursday before repeating the phrase again moments later. “And you know, everybody is trying to do their best. And we’re trying to move along. … But it’s what it is. So we just go with it, do the best we can.”
UNC on Friday hosts Holy Cross, and it will be the Tar Heels’ second consecutive game without Hairston and McDonald, the team’s most experienced guards. Both are sitting out while the NCAA completes investigations into impermissible benefits that Hairston and McDonald are believed to have received.
The university has remained quiet about the case, and hasn’t detailed why it has taken so long to resolve. That stance continued Thursday.
“The university and the NCAA are still working together to resolve an eligibility issue,” Steve Kirschner, a UNC athletic department spokesman, said before Williams’ regularly-scheduled meeting with reporters. “There’s no timetable. It’ll be done when it’s done.”
Whether that’s in a day, a week or a month – or longer – remains unclear. What is clear is the uncertainty surrounding Hairston and McDonald has become a part of the Tar Heels’ normal routine in this abnormal early season.
Hairston and McDonald have still been practicing as they normally would, Williams said, but instead of spending most of their time with the starters, they now spend more time with the “blue team” – which consists mostly of the reserves and others who don’t play as often during games.
“We have seen more lineups (recently) with them on the blue team just to get us ready for (games), for example,” sophomore guard Marcus Paige said. “But coach is still mixing them in with the white group and keeping them as a part of the team.”
Paige is among those whose roles has been most affected by the absence of Hairston, a junior who led UNC in scoring last season, and McDonald, the team’s only scholarship senior. With them, Paige would have started the season at point guard. Without them, he has moved to shooting guard, and Nate Britt, a freshman, has started at point guard.
The two point-guard lineup worked well in the 84-61 season-opening victory against Oakland last week. Britt pushed the pace, while Paige tied his career high with four 3-pointers.
“It’s not the first thing that I thought of when I looked at our lineup, obviously,” Paige said of starting alongside Britt. “But I knew we were going to share the court a little bit together just because coach had told us that there was a possibility. He likes having multiple ball-handlers on the court, and that helps speed our offense up.”
The cases involving Hairston and McDonald, meanwhile, might continue to operate at a slow pace. Paige said he’s “extremely frustrated” that the case hasn’t been decided and, he said, “A lot of us are (frustrated).”
“It’d just be nice to know, so you know you can move on,” Paige said.
The more time has passed, the more rumors have spread about Hairston and McDonald’s status. Speculation, too, has become a part of UNC’s reality early on, as has the fact that the Hairston and McDonald storyline has overshadowed all others at the start of the season.
The saga has created its own byproducts, too: like the two point-guard starting lineup, and the opportunity for the emergence of sophomore forward J.P. Tokoto, who scored a career-high 13 points – all in the first half – last week against Oakland. Williams at one point on Thursday said Tokoto has been the team’s second-best player in practice throughout the preseason and early part of the season.
“I thought I’ve already said that once,” Williams said. “… By far the most impressive player in practice would be P.J. Hairston. It’s not even close.”
Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter