P.J. Hairston news a 'relief' and a burden for Tar Heels

acarter@newsobserver.comDecember 20, 2013 

  • Saturday's game

    No. 14 UNC vs. Davidson

    When: 5 p.m.

    Where: Smith Center, Chapel Hill

    TV/Radio: ESPNU/101.5-WRAL

    Projected starting lineups

    Davidson (4-7)

    G Tyler Kalinoski 10.8 ppg, 6 rpg

    G Brian Sullivan 12.5 ppg, 2 apg

    G Tom Droney 13.1 ppg, 4 rpg

    F Chris Czerapowicz 8 ppg, 4.5 rpg

    F De’Mon Brooks 16.8 ppg, 6.4 rpg

    UNC (7-3)

    G Nate Britt 6 ppg, 2.8 apg

    G Marcus Paige 19.6 ppg, 4.1 apg

    F J.P. Tokoto 9.6 ppg, 4.8 rpg

    F James Michael McAdoo 13.5 ppg, 5.4 rpg

    F Brice Johnson 12.3 ppg, 6.3 rpg

    Player to watch

    Brice Johnson, forward, North Carolina

    Johnson, the 6-foot-9 sophomore, is likely to start for the first time this season after Joel James suffered a sprained MCL early during the defeat against Texas on Wednesday night. James is likely to be out 10 to 14 days because of the injury, UNC coach Roy Williams said. Johnson, who started two games last season, has been a force offensively this season, but Williams has been critical of his defense. If he shows improvement there, it might be difficult for Williams to remove him from the starting lineup when James is ready to come back.

    Observations: This will be UNC’s first game since it became clear that P.J. Hairston, the junior guard, would no longer play with the Tar Heels. It’s unclear whether Hairston will continue to watch games from the bench. … After games against Kentucky and Texas, two of the best rebounding teams in the nation, the Tar Heels get a reprieve against Davidson, which ranks among the bottom two-thirds of teams nationally in offensive and defensive rebounding percentage. … Free throws remained a point of emphasis for UNC in recent practices. Williams said each player shot 200 of them during a shoot around on Thursday afternoon.

    – Andrew Carter

— This wasn’t the resolution that North Carolina had been hoping for, or the resolution it wanted, but at last it has one, at least. The Tar Heels now know, finally, that P.J. Hairston, the junior guard who led the team in scoring last season, will not be back.

“Now we know as a team what’s going on, what the final decision is,” J.P. Tokoto, UNC’s sophomore forward, said on Friday. “(We can) finally just kind of get things finalized and figure out who we are as a team and what we have and what we can work with this year.”

Roy Williams had expressed hope that Hairston would return this season. So, too, had Bubba Cunningham, the UNC athletics director. Hairston’s teammates had been optimistic. For the longest time, though, all anyone could do was wait.

Now that wait is over. UNC on Friday announced that it would not seek to reinstate Hairston, who had been held out of every game this season while UNC and the NCAA investigated his receipt of impermissible benefits.

In the end, UNC decided that the case against Hairston was too great. The uncertainty that surrounded him cast a pall over the start of the season. The Tar Heels, though, have perhaps exceeded expectations without him.

They have lost three times against unranked opponents, but UNC also has defeated three teams – Kentucky, Michigan State and Louisville – that began the season ranked 1-2-3 nationally. Now, Williams and his players are left to wonder what might have been had Hairston returned.

“It’s not going to benefit the team physically on the court,” Williams said when asked whether a resolution to Hairston’s case could help his team move forward. “I mean, you guys, we lost a game by four, a game by three, where we missed 49 free throws. P.J. can make a free throw, OK?

“He’s been the most dominating player in our practice on the perimeter that I’ve ever coached.”

If Hairston would have been able to return at any point this season, he might have transformed the Tar Heels into one of the favorites to win the national championship. Hairston was among the best perimeter shooters in the ACC a season ago, and he averaged more than 18 points per game after entering the starting lineup in mid-February.

Without him, UNC has already proven that it can compete with – and beat – some of the best teams in the nation. Yet consistency has remained elusive. In the loss against Texas on Wednesday, the Tar Heels’ poor free throw shooting – UNC was 24-for-47 from the line – doomed them.

Hairston, who made 77.9 percent of his free throw attempts last season, would have immediately made UNC a better free-throw shooting team. He also would have bolstered the Tar Heels’ perimeter offense, which in turn might have helped open up things on the interior, where UNC has at times excelled.

Now, without Hairston, the Tar Heels remain thin on the outside. Marcus Paige and Leslie McDonald are the team’s only proven 3-point shooters. Without Hairston, UNC will continue to be reliant upon Tokoto, whose skill is still trying to catch up to his athleticism.

Tokoto in recent weeks has effectively used his jump shot. McDonald, meanwhile, is now second on the team in made 3-pointers – with four – despite having played in just one game. The NCAA on Wednesday cleared McDonald, who had also been under investigation for impermissible benefits.

“Having Leslie back out there on the wing gives us some size, some shooting – stretches the floor,” Tokoto said. “What we needed, or what we’ve been missing this season. And having him back, I feel like aside from our loss, of course, our team is much better.”

Hairston learned his fate on Wednesday. That’s when Cunningham, the athletic director, informed Hairston and his mom that UNC wouldn’t be submitting a reinstatement request.

Still, Hairston practiced with the team early on Thursday – the Tar Heels practiced at 5 a.m. because Williams was so upset with the performance against Texas – and he practiced again on Friday. Tokoto said Hairston is “doing fine,” and that Hairston told his teammates to “come together” and not let his news affect them.

Now, though, the Tar Heels at least know it’s over. No more wondering when, or if, Hairston is coming back. No more hoping for his return.

“Finally finding out what’s going on and what the final decision was is kind of a relief,” Tokoto said. “ It’s kind of sad, too.”

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

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