One way to look at North Carolina's late-season resurgence a year ago was that by moving P.J. Hairston into the starting lineup and going small, Roy Williams was able to put his best five players on the floor.
Another way to look at is that the Tar Heels changed their identity because of the lack of progression in James Michael McAdoo's game.
The hope around Chapel Hill a year ago was that McAdoo would become a star as a sophomore.
McAdoo's freshmen numbers had not been spectacular—he was inefficient, shooting 43.4 percent from the field—but you could see the athleticism, the body and all the potential that came with it.
Unfortunately for the Heels, McAdoo as a sophomore was similar to the McAdoo as a freshman; only McAdoo as a sophomore was playing a lot more minutes and getting many more touches.
When playing traditional and leaning on McAdoo did not work, Roy Williams had to make a midseason change by inserting Hairston into the lineup and going small. (After everything that has happened with Hairston this summer, it's understandable why it took so long to make that move.)
Once Williams went that direction, the Heels were really dangerous when Hairston and Reggie Bullock were on from the perimeter.
Williams essentially went all-in with a live-or-die-by-the-three mentality, and it got the Heels to the tourney. They won six straight league games with Hairston in the lineup and then made it to the ACC championship game.
Hairston, not McAdoo, ended up leading UNC in scoring, and the pressure to be the go-to guy this upcoming season would have been on Hairston.
Would. Have. Been.
Yes, that last clause suggests that Hairston's career at UNC is in the past tense. Hairston is currently suspended indefinitely because of the string of traffic violations in somebody else's ride, and his unbelievable disregard for common sense has his career in jeopardy.
At the very least, he'll begin the season suspended.
Where should North Carolina be ranked in the preseason if P.J. Hairston is not allowed to play?
Without Hairston, the Tar Heels will be in a position similar to the one they were in a year ago, leaning on McAdoo and hoping he turns all that potential into real production.
Here's the good news for UNC: It's much too early to write off McAdoo.
In the age of one-and-done, we sometimes fall into the trap of expecting too much from top-tier recruits too soon. In the case of McAdoo, he has smartly returned to school and turning the corner as an upperclassmen is within the realm of possibility.
The NBA might have taken a gamble on McAdoo in the first round, but as I wrote after UNC's loss to Kansas, it was clear he was not ready. You can look at that game, or any other McAdoo played against elite big men, for that matter, to see his faults.
McAdoo went 5 of 19 that day against the defense of KU's Jeff Withey. According to CBSSports.com's shot chart, nine of his attempts were jumpers. McAdoo settled for jumpers too often. Hoop-Math.com's numbers have him taking two-point jumpers on 66 percent of his attempts and he made only 32 percent of those shots. Conversely, he shot 70 percent at the rim.
This speaks to the inefficiency McAdoo has battled throughout his career. He made only 44.7 percent of his twos a year ago. Most elite big men are near the 60 percent range.
The Tar Heels need more of McAdoo operating in the paint. Last season they could live by leaning on their perimeter shooters against most teams, but it didn't usually work against teams with legit big boys inside.
UNC was 0-5 against the best frontlines in the ACC: Duke and Miami. In games that McAdoo played against big men drafted in 2013—UNC played seven such games—he shot 34.7 percent.
Unlike last season, it could be hard to find a savior on the perimeter. If Hairston is out, the Tar Heels most proven wing will be Leslie McDonald, who averaged 7.2 points per game and shot 35.9 percent from the perimeter in 2012-13.
Williams did sign two big men who could make an impact right away—Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks. Also, one or two of Brice Johnson, Joel James, Desmond Hubert and Jackson Simmons could emerge as a starting-worthy big. The depth and size inside could lead to improvements in UNC's defense. The Heels' adjusted defensive efficiency (per KenPom.com—subscription needed) was the worst of the Williams' era.
But it would be too much to ask of any of those incoming or returning bigs—outside of McAdoo—to be the man. The only guys on the roster who has the game and the experience to carry the water are McAdoo and Hairston.
This is not to say that UNC is doomed. If McAdoo has improved his post game and tries to play around the basket more often, the Heels should expect to be better even if Hairston never plays.
If McAdoo is a similar version to his sophomore self, the Heels might be in for a down year, holding onto the hope that another midseason surge from Hairston will save them.