CHAPEL HILL — North Carolina has dealt with uncertainty and challenges for a while now, ever since P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald placed their eligibility in jeopardy with decisions that have already cost them three games and will cost them more.
Now, though, the Tar Heels are dealing with a different kind of struggle, the kind that comes with a surprising defeat against an opponent no UNC player ever expected to lose against. The Tar Heels might have anticipated difficult times without Hairston and McDonald, both of whom are sitting out amid NCAA eligibility concerns.
Still, UNC never expected to lose to Belmont, which last weekend left Chapel Hill with an 83-80 victory.
“I didn’t expect to lose, if that’s what you’re asking,” Marcus Paige, the sophomore guard, said after that game when presented with a question about whether UNC should have expected some struggles without Hairston and McDonald. “We had no intentions of losing this game.
“And we thought, even despite whatever lineup problems we have, we should have won. But I guess that’s what happens.”
The Tar Heels now have an early opportunity for atonement. They traveled on Thursday to Uncasville, Conn. – neither Hairston nor McDonald made the trip – to play in the Naismith Hall of Fame Tip-Off. When the organizers made the bracket for this event, they undoubtedly envisioned a UNC-Louisville game on Sunday.
To get there, though, the Tar Heels would need to first defeat Richmond on Saturday. The same Richmond team that beat Belmont earlier this season.
“It should get our guys’ attention,” UNC coach Roy Williams said earlier this week, “that the team that beat us lost to the guys we’re getting ready to play next.”
Williams should have had little trouble commanding attention in practice after the defeat against Belmont. The Tar Heels were dreadful from the free-throw line in that game – they made just 22 of their 48 attempts – and from start to finish their poor defense helped Belmont thrive from the perimeter.
The Bruins, who trailed by eight points with about 2 ½ minutes to play, took advantage of that porous defense late. They took the lead for good with a 3-pointer that UNC didn’t defend well with 14 seconds to play, and then Belmont finished the game in somewhat fitting fashion – with an uncontested layup just the before the final buzzer.
Offensively, Williams said he was “pleased” with the shots the Tar Heels generated against Belmont. But defensively?
“I was not pleased at all,” Williams said. “And then when I looked at the tape, it was even worse. There was 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.”
Without Hairston, a junior who led the team in scoring last season, and McDonald, UNC’s only scholarship senior, Williams is limited. His options are confined.
The Tar Heels are starting at least two players – Nate Britt, a freshman point guard, and J.P. Tokoto, a sophomore forward – who would be coming off the bench if not for the absence of Hairston and McDonald. Williams could use a bigger lineup – one with James Michael McAdoo, Brice Johnson and Joel James all starting in the frontcourt – but, barring that, there’s not much room for experimentation.
“What you see is what we’ve got,” Williams said on Thursday, with a sense of resignation.
He noted that even in the team’s practices on Friday in Connecticut, the Tar Heels would be limited. Ordinarily, Hairston and McDonald would have been counted on to help run the opposing team’s plays on the scout team. But they didn’t make the trip.
“So it even limits us there (in practice),” Williams said.
The Tar Heels are only three games into the season and already need something good to happen. A defeat on Saturday would send UNC to the consolation bracket, likely against Fairfield. This trip, UNC’s first of the season, was supposed to end with a meeting against Louisville, the defending national champion.
That possibility has almost become an afterthought. Williams is first seeking a positive response from the defeat against Belmont.
“I want to see how we handle some adversity,” he said. “I want to see how we bounce back."
Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter