With Yahoo Sports reporting Wednesday afternoon that former North Carolina Tar Heels standout P.J. Hairston may not play for the Tar Heels at all this year, North Carolina suddenly faces a completely different atmosphere for the remainder of this college basketball season.
As it is, North Carolina’s season has been a bit of a roller coaster without Hairston and teammate Leslie McDonald, who have yet to play a game this fall due to questions over eligibility. The Tar Heels have been masterful in wins over three teams ranked 11th or higher in the country, including the top-ranked Michigan State Spartans, No. 3 Louisville Cardinals, and most recently the No. 11 Kentucky Wildcats this past Saturday.
But losses to the Belmont Bruins and UAB Blazers have shown that the Tar Heels may need a bit more than what is currently available on the roster, and Hairston and McDonald were expected to provide that boost. A 6-foot-6 junior, Hairston averaged nearly 15 points per game last season and figured to be perhaps the Tar Heels’ best player this season once he was cleared as eligible.
McDonald, a 6-foot-5 senior guard, wasn’t much of a scorer, averaging 7.0 and 7.2 points per game in his two seasons at North Carolina. But he was a decent three-point shooter at 37 percent for 251 attempts in his career, and he rarely turns the ball over (less than once per game on average).
The Yahoo story reports that McDonald may be cleared to play as early as tonight when North Carolina hosts the Texas Longhorns. His return will help, but if Hairston is out North Carolina goes from a good team with some excellent results knowing it was going to get its potentially best player back to being just what it has been all along — a team capable of playing with the country’s best but one that will slip up against lesser competition. Saturday’s win over Kentucky marked the first time this season the Tar Heels had won three games in a row.
Given the difficulty night in and night out of the new 15-team ACC, such inconsistency will make it difficult for the Tar Heels to finish in the top three of the conference given other powers such as the Duke Blue Devils, Syracuse Orange, and Pittsburgh Panthers.
While the notable n0n-conference wins have already done wonders for North Carolina’s NCAA Tournament resume, if Hairston is truly done the Tar Heels have to adjust to a new reality that might make life very difficult for them in the conference this season.