Everyone got a white T-shirt to wear Saturday at the Smith Center, and that included P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald, both in sweatpants on the North Carolina bench, both still suspended pending the disposition of their NCAA issues.
That process has taken longer than anyone could have imagined, but as far as the Tar Heels are concerned, it might as well take as long as it needs to run its course. North Carolina is doing just fine without them, thank you very much.
Saturday’s 82-77 victory against Kentucky, amid an atmosphere as rowdy as any Duke visit, completed the Tar Heels’ sweep of the top three teams in the preseason AP poll. (Duke, meanwhile, was No. 4.)
Very few gave North Carolina a chance of winning any of those games without Hairston and McDonald, let alone all three. And yet the Tar Heels continue to figure out how to win with this roster that is so very different than the one they expected to have.
“It’s not a game everyone in the room would pick us to win,” North Carolina guard Marcus Paige said. “We had to come out with the mentality that we had to play hard, be the aggressor and let the chips fall from there.”
The Wildcats are raw talent, still being honed into workable shape by a clearly frustrated John Calipari, whose annual work in that regard is annually underrated. But their struggles were encapsulated by star freshman forward Julius Randle, who was outshined by a surprisingly aggressive James Michael McAdoo after saying he was excited to make a statement in this game.
“Maybe too excited,” Calipari said. “McAdoo made a statement.”
It’s harder to put a finger on the Tar Heels at the moment. They’re less talented than Kentucky, less experienced than Michigan State, less explosive than Louisville.
And yet they have beaten all three. Soundly. Without Hairston and McDonald.
Perhaps the only firm conclusions to be drawn are that the Tar Heels continue to improve, continue to find ways to win with this weakened lineup, continue to rely heavily on Paige, continue to impress.
“We’re such a young group and sometimes an immature group, you don’t want to get them too fat and happy,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “Those games coming up are still pretty big, but I do think they understand what we want them to do.”
When Nate Britt plays with this kind of authority as a freshman, when McAdoo shows this appetite for taking the ball to the rim, when the Tar Heels collectively are this willing to dig in at the defensive end and play physical, the Tar Heels can beat anyone in the country.
Would North Carolina be better with Hairston and McDonald? Probably, but there’s no guarantee. Team chemistry is a fragile thing, impossible to force and easy to disrupt. The Tar Heels, as currently constituted, have figured it out.
As time passes and more wins pile up, those baffling early losses seem less like indictments of the Tar Heels’ future and more like artifacts of their past. The latter phrase would also apply to Hairston and McDonald at this point. As badly as North Carolina could use their outside shooting, the Tar Heels are managing just fine without it.
As J.P. Tokoto threw down the emphatic dunk that essentially sealed the win with 15 seconds to play, Hairston stood in front of the bench waving his arms to pump up the crowd. It was as close as he has gotten to the court this season. It may be as close as he gets. The Tar Heels have learned how to deal with that.