They could only watch as their season fizzled out a year ago, Dexter Strickland unable to play, P.J. Hairston ineffective.
Now both are starting for North Carolina as the Tar Heels open the NCAA tournament against Villanova on Friday. Both are critical pieces for the Tar Heels, playing key roles in the team’s second-half revival as well as its run to the ACC tournament final.
And both have everything to prove on the NCAA tournament stage this time around. Strickland is the team’s emotional leader. Hairston is its catalyst on the court, with his ability to score in bunches at any time.
“What he provides the team is not an emotional thing to me,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “It’s the ability to shoot the dadgum ball in the basket. When his shot goes in, everybody is more enthused.”
Strickland tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee at Virginia Tech last January, but his absence was most keenly felt after Kendall Marshall broke his wrist in the round-of-32 game against Creighton. The Tar Heels were able to get past Ohio with the unlikely duo of Justin Watts and Stilman White playing point guard, but not Kansas.
While Marshall practiced the morning of the Kansas game, hoping but failing to find a way to fight through the pain in his fractured right scaphoid and play – as it turned out, he also had an undiagnosed fracture in the same elbow – Strickland was still limping around.
“It hurt me a lot, not being able to go out there and help my team win in games that we struggled in,” Strickland said. “With this being my last year, I want to just try and take advantage, give it my all and help the team win.”
Hairston played, although the entire tournament was a forgettable experience for him. He played only 54 minutes in the four games, went 6-for-21 from the field and 2-for-13 from 3-point range. By the time the Tar Heels reached St. Louis, he looked almost afraid to shoot – he took only two 3-point attempts in each of North Carolina’s final two games.
He’s taken more than two 3-pointers in all but one game this season, and is averaging 7.7 3-point attempts per game since the lineup switch. It’s all part of his emergence. No one’s role has changed more than Hairston’s from last season, not to mention his elevation in Williams’ eyes from “pansy” to “tough sucker.”
“I was a freshman last year,” Hairston said. “It was a big stage for me, to see those lights and be playing in my first NCAA tournament as a freshman in college, making it to the Elite Eight. That was kind of a big step. I was playing just kind of a role on the team, spare minutes for other players. I still tried to go in and play hard, regardless.
“Now, this year, now that I’ve become one of the threats on the team, with Reggie (Bullock) and Dexter and Marcus (Paige) and James Michael (McAdoo). My confidence is through the roof. Now, I just feel good about everything.”
White is gone, serving a two-year Mormon mission (in Ogden, Utah, conveniently close to Brigham Young should White decide to resume his basketball career there when his mission is complete). Watts just signed with a team in Australia. Harrison Barnes, John Henson, Kendall Marshall and Tyler Zeller are all in the NBA.
Only three players remain from the lineup that lost to Kansas in St. Louis – Hairston, Bullock and McAdoo. They’re all hoping for better, along with one who never got the chance.