North Carolina begins the 2013-14 season tonight at the Smith Center against Oakland. The start of the game will bring a welcome end to a difficult off-season, what with all the poor choices that P.J. Hairston made, and a difficult preseason, what with all the questions about when, and if, Hairston and Leslie McDonald will play.
Tar Heels coach Roy Williams said this has been his most difficult preseason. And that followed his most difficult off-season, he said. Now, over the course of the next few months, we’ll find out whether this is among the most difficult seasons for Williams. Even with its full complement of players, UNC would have faced plenty of questions. But the questions surrounding Hairston and McDonald have made things complicated.
Without further delay, the most glaring questions surrounding the Tar Heels at the start of the season:
1. How much time will Hairston and McDonald miss?
This is the most important, and most obvious, question surrounding the Tar Heels at the start of the season. The NCAA is investigating both players in separate cases involving impermissible benefits. As I wrote about in a story published today, there’s nothing but uncertainty surrounding both players. The issues surrounding both have been well-documented. So for the sake of time, let’s skip all that and just get to the point: How many games will they miss while they serve suspensions? Up until very recently, I would have guessed a maximum of between eight to 10 games for Hairston, and maybe one or two for McDonald. But the situation seems a lot direr now. UNC has remained tight-lipped about all of this, so concrete information has been difficult to come by. But that hasn’t stopped the spread of rumors that paint a doomsday scenario. I still believe that McDonald will be back sooner rather than later. When, exactly? I don’t know. I’d say well before the start of conference play. With Hairston, though, the situation seems murkier. If his suspension stretches into the start of ACC play – or if, as some rumors would have you believe, he’s done for good – UNC’s expectations change considerably. Which brings us to the next question …
2. If UNC is forced to play the majority of the season, or the whole season, without Hairston, how does that change things for the Tar Heels?
Losing Hairston would be huge, huge blow to UNC, but I don’t think it’d be an automatic ticket to the NIT. The Tar Heels still have some nice pieces without Hairston. What they wouldn’t have, though, is their best perimeter shooter, their best penetrating scorer and their most potent offensive player. Let’s start with the shooting. Without Hairston, where does UNC’s perimeter offense come from? Marcus Paige would have to become a reliable 3-point shooter, and the team would lean heavily on McDonald, when he returns. UNC would also have to identify the next-best offensive option behind James Michael McAdoo. Who would that player be? McDonald, when he gets back? Paige? Maybe Kennedy Meeks, the freshman center, on the inside? Maybe Brice Johnson, the sophomore forward? There is no clear answer here, and that’s concerning. But that doesn’t mean that one wouldn’t emerge. With Hairston, I think UNC is a Sweet 16 kind of team with some upside. I’m an Associated Press top 25 voter, and I put the Tar Heels’ 18th on my preseason ballot. Without Hairston, I think UNC becomes a fringe NCAA tournament team. I wouldn’t put the Tar Heels in the NIT, but I wouldn’t write them in the field of 68, either.
3. Who becomes the reliable low-post player that Roy Williams is so desperately seeking?
As I wrote about in my story in our preview section, UNC is hoping for a frontcourt revival this season. The Tar Heels went small last year because they had to, but Williams never really liked it. He wants to use the same system that he has used to win two national championships and hundreds of games – a system based on reliable inside scoring. Will UNC have that this season? The Tar Heels have a good chance to have it, I’d say. Johnson, the sophomore forward, was a good scorer last year, and he says he has improved defensively. If so, that will allow him to stay on the floor longer, and he’ll have more opportunities on offense. Joel James, another sophomore, was really raw last year, but he figures to be better this season. And then there’s Meeks. He might have come the farthest of any of his teammates since the summer, when he arrived on campus weighing about 320 pounds. He’s down to the mid-280s now, and while he’s not exactly svelte, he’s much better equipped than he was to handle the fast pace of the offense. Meeks has the best overall skill set of any of UNC’s big guys, and so I think he has the best chance to emerge, in time, and become the player Williams has been searching for.
4. Can Marcus Paige be a difference-maker on both ends?
As I wrote about here, Paige has come a long way in one year. Remember the Paige we saw at the start of last season? He was a bit timid and unsure and, physically, he was overmatched. Well now he’s assertive and sure of himself. And while he’s never going to look like the strongest guy, Paige has put on about 15 pounds during the past year. All those things are well and good, and Paige will be better this season. There’s no doubting that. But how much better? He was going to have to be good regardless of the Hairston/McDonald situation, but that uncertainty makes Paige’s role even more important. He will start the season starting at shooting guard alongside Nate Britt, the freshman point guard, and so Paige will have to adopt a scorer’s mentality. If he’s able to become a consistent, reliable scorer, that would go a long way toward mitigating the losses of Hairston and McDonald. Defensively, meanwhile, Paige simply couldn’t keep up at times last year. That was true in Hawaii in that Butler game, and against Lorenzo Brown in the first game against N.C. State. By the end of the year, though, Paige was among UNC’s best defensive players. He has to carry that over to this season, and he can’t allow himself to be pushed around like he was at times last season.
5. Is James Michael McAdoo ready to take the next step?
Look, I despise all this arbitrary discussion that we sports media types have about “who’s elite?” Is this quarterback “elite?” That quarterback? Is this point guard “an elite” point guard? Does so-and-so baseball team have “an elite” front-end starter? It’s all pretty silly to me, putting these labels on guys. Still, it’s clear that UNC needs McAdoo to be more than what he was last season. And he was a good player last season. The stats back that up. He was a solid, good, productive player. The expectations are greater now, though. The hope at UNC is that someone emerges at the center position – the “five,” as they call it – so that McAdoo is freed up more around the basket. McAdoo had to play the five a lot last season, and you could tell he was never all that comfortable with it. And that’s because he’s not a traditional back-to-the-basket post player. As Williams noted, the best stretch McAdoo has had at UNC was toward the end of his freshman season, when he got to play alongside Tyler Zeller for long stretches. McAdoo needs that kind of complementary presence. If he has it this year, then, yes … I could see him becoming “an elite” player in the ACC. Ugh. Can’t believe I went there.
And here are five more questions:
--Assuming Hairston comes back, how good can be? All-ACC good? All-American good? And how might his off-season fuel him?
--What kind of impact will freshman Isaiah Hicks have? A lanky forward from Oxford, he was considered the top prospect in the state last season.
--Can UNC improve on its dreadful free-throw shooting? The Tar Heels haven’t shot at least 70 percent from the line since its most recent national championship season in 2009.
--What role-playing returnee makes the biggest leap and becomes a more reliable contributor? Jackson Simmons? Desmond Hubert?
--And will, as the song goes, P.J. be back for Kentucky?
The answers start arriving tonight.