UNC Basketball: Is It Fair to Judge Tar Heels Without Suspended Stars?

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UNC Basketball: Is It Fair to Judge Tar Heels Without Suspended Stars?
Liz Condo-USA TODAY Sports
North Carolina has been without its two most experienced wings Leslie McDonald, left, and P.J. Hairston, right.

North Carolina's loss on Sunday afternoon to Belmont unveiled a laundry list of issues that would be troubling if the roster wasn't going to eventually change.

Roy Williams' rotations were hard to figure and helped Belmont bury 15 treys. The Heels cannot shoot from anywhere outside the paint, and that includes the free throw line where they were a dreadful 22 of 48. And Williams has been forced to move his best play-maker, Marcus Paige, off the ball into more of a scoring role.

Here's why in the long run the Heels can put this loss behind them and still be a top 15-10ish team down the road: The solutions to those issues are sitting on the bench in suits.

The Heels do not lose that game on Sunday if P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald are on the floor, and the good news is both should eventually be on the floor.

The big question is whether or not Williams will adapt like he did last year once he has all his weapons.

If you remember, the Heels had a six-game winning streak, made a run to the ACC tournament championship game and won an NCAA tourney game last year after Williams went small and inserted Hairston into the starting lineup. The star guard averaged 18.2 points per game once he became a full-time starter.

Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports
P.J. Hairston knocked down a team-best 89 threes last year for the Tar Heels.

It will not be necessary to go to a small-ball lineup that features Hairston at the 4 once he returns. It will be necessary, however, to play at least Hairston or McDonald at all times, because it's going to be hard to run offense without them.

The Heels actually did an admirable job offensively with what they had against Belmont. The Bruins packed the paint and tried to make the Heels beat them with jumpers. But they refused to do so—attempting only seven threes—and found a way to get into the paint.

The problem was that often led to trips to the line.

Even if the free throw shooting improves—it has to, right?—it's going to become really tough to run offense without a second shooter on the court against teams with size. Paige is the only Tar Heel with more than two threes made in his entire career.

Asking J.P. Tokoto to be that second guy is obviously not going to work. Not only does Tokoto struggle at the line—he went 4 of 16 against Belmont—the sophomore wing is now 2 of 16 from distance in his career. 

Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports
J.P. Tokoto has made only 18 of 51 free throws in his career.

Tokoto's shooting issues will not be that big of a problem when he's playing next to Hairston or McDonald, and he could even be a good weapon in a small-ball lineup as UNC's 4 because of his size (6'5") and athleticism.

The question is whether Williams will be willing to go that route when Hairston and McDonald are back.

The Heels have their most depth inside and Williams has insisted on getting at least five of his six bigs in the rotation. Williams even went with a lineup that included Jackson Simmons, Kennedy Meeks and Brice Johnson at one point against Belmont.

Going big helped the Heels on the boards—they got back nearly half of their misses—but they were going to dominate the boards no matter who played.

Williams was hesitant last year to go small and his head-scratching hesitancy this year is an insistence on playing one of his true centers at all times. Obviously, he wants James Michael McAdoo on the floor as much as possible, but the team's most productive big outside of McADoo has been Johnson, the backup power forward.

Johnson is averaging 12 points per game, 6.3 rebounds and shooting 66.7 percent, yet he's playing only 19 minutes per game. Until the second half on Sunday, McAdoo and Johnson had only played together at the 4 and 5 for a total of 6 minutes and 39 seconds, and never for a stretch of more than 2 1/2 minutes.

Liz Condo-USA TODAY Sports
Brice Johnson scored 14 points and had nine rebounds in the loss to Belmont.

That lineup produced a 14-2 run that rallied UNC from a 10-point deficit in the second half against Belmont. 

But UNC had gotten in that hole by trying to play big, including several lineups with three bigs like the aforementioned Simmons/Meeks/Johnson combo. Playing two big men made it hard enough to defend Belmont and playing three was just asking to give up open threes.

The Bruins are the extreme when it comes to small-ball, but they are not the last team that UNC will face that will go small and shoot a lot of threes. Duke will do the same with lineups that include Rodney Hood and Jabari Parker at the 4 and 5.

With Hairston and McDonald, the Heels will have lineups that can combat that. The two wings will also allow Paige to move back to point guard full-time.

The frustrating thing for UNC is knowing when that time is going to come because the NCAA is involved in both cases. A possible meeting with Louisville this Sunday and December matchups against Michigan State and Kentucky are looming and could get ugly if Hairston and McDonald are still in suits.

If worst somehow happens and Hairston is not allowed to play, you could be looking at an NIT team. But assuming Hairston is allowed to eventually return, it's way too soon to judge these Heels based off what took place on Sunday.

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