In the absence of P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald, many college basketball pundits and fans alike assumed the North Carolina Tar Heels' season was over before it even started. Missing their top-two wings would be hard to overcome with North Carolina's challenging nonconference schedule. An early loss to Belmont added fuel to the fire and gave credence to the naysayers.
Then UNC picked up a shockingly dominant win over defending champion Louisville. Then another over top-ranked Michigan State.
Yes, there was another loss to a mid-major between those games. But did anyone truly believe it was possible for the Tar Heels to even come close to taking down two Top Five teams with only one true wing not dressed in a suit and tie?
If you honestly predicted those wins, I'll be sure to set up an interview for you with Miss Cleo and have you fill out my next lottery ticket. No, really. Hit me up.
As it turns out, the season is far from shot, and there is still a glimmer of hope that Hairston and McDonald could return to put this team over the top. For now, the Tar Heels are just pressing forward, showing few signs of concern for the pending returns of their suspended teammates.
It's hard to imagine UNC would have lost to Belmont and UAB with Hairston and McDonald on the floor. Overall, though, I would contend that their absence has actually benefited the 'Heels.
How many times last season did you want to throw the nearest object at the television because they wouldn't stop shooting threes—even when they weren't falling? Remotes, food, cats... nothing was safe in my household.
In 2012-13, North Carolina had a plethora of perimeter weapons with the likes of Reggie Bullock, P.J. Hairston, Leslie McDonald and, eventually, Marcus Paige. Between their shooting talents and the lack of experience in the posts, UNC often leaned on three-pointers to a fault.
If the deep ball wasn't dropping, the Tar Heels weren't coming out on top.
A whopping 30.7 percent of the team's attempts were threes and just 32.5 percent of the team's scoring came from the post players. In fact, the posts were so ineffective Williams had to play four guards and move James Michael McAdoo to center for the last 13 games.
That's not Roy Williams basketball, and it's in stark contrast to his championship squads.
In its last title season (2008-09), 27.2 percent of Carolina's field-goal attempts were behind the arc. Meanwhile, the big boys produced 45.7 percent of the team's offense.
That, my friends, is Roy Williams basketball.
Without Hairston and McDonald, Paige is the only real weapon on the perimeter this season. He has buried 20 of the Tar Heels' 23 treys. Hence only 16.1 percent of all attempts have come from downtown. This has forced the guards to attack the basket and pound the rock inside to the bigs.
Now, Carolina's post players are producing 55.3 percent of its 77.5 points per game. While the lack of balance isn't ideal, it's getting the team in the proper mental state before the (potential) return of Hairston and L-Mac.
Post production was a concern coming into the season—especially from the center position. Sophomore Joel James and freshman Kennedy Meeks probably wouldn't have nearly as many touches with Hairston and McDonald on the floor.
That's not a knock on the two upperclassmen. They aren't ball hogs. But the underclassmen would have looked to them to score, and the ball wouldn't have been forced inside nearly as much.
James and Meeks have combined to score 12.5 points per game. Last year, Carolina centers only managed 3.4.
It isn't just the bigs that have benefited from their absence, either. Sophomore J.P. Tokoto and freshman Nate Britt would most likely be coming off the bench and playing fewer minutes. Instead, they are both gaining invaluable experience and seem to be developing their games with each contest.
Britt is quickly learning the system, attacking the basket and stepping up his defense. Tokoto is improving his team defense and seems to have a better understanding of his limitations.
Though the 2 isn't where we wanted to see Paige after his trial-by-fire last season, at least he is becoming more aggressive on the offensive end of the floor. He was a scoring freak in high school, knocking down treys and floaters all over the floor.
We got a taste of that during the final stretch of last season, but it was nothing like what we have witnessed thus far in his sophomore campaign. Even after a three-game shooting slump, Paige is still averaging 18.8 points and shooting 39.2 percent from downtown.
He's also dropping 4.5 dimes a game, which is just 0.1 shy of last season's mark when he was running the point. Imagine the numbers he'll put up when he is back at his natural position.
There is at least one more area the Tar Heels have benefited from the suspensions of Hairston and McDonald, and that is defense. If a team is lacking offensive pop, it better learn to play some defense.
We have even seen Coach Williams switch to a zone defense from his standard hedge-and-recover scheme to get the most out of his players' abilities. A couple years ago, that seemed as likely as playing four guards or calling a timeout on the last possession.
The strategy has certainly paid off.
According to TeamRankings.com, UNC is holding its opponents to 66.5 points per game on 37.6 percent shooting—good enough for 13th in the nation. The team is also averaging 7.6 steals per game without the 1.8 Hairston and McDonald jacked last season.
What's most surprising, though, is the shot-blocking. Carolina is up from a pedestrian 3.3 last season to a solid 4.5 per contest.
Desmond Hubert led the team last season with 0.8 blocks per game. This year, both James Michael McAdoo and Brice Johnson average over one per game. McAdoo has never had more than 14 blocks in a season, and he already has nine through the first eight games.
Less flopping, more swatting from the Mac Attack. That's what we have been waiting for.
Has the situation in Chapel Hill been ideal? Absolutely not.
Are the Tar Heels better off without P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald? You're nuts if you think so.
But there is no doubt this team has benefited immensely from their absence, and will only get better if and when those two suit up again.
Are the Tar Heels a championship-caliber team in 2013-14 with Hairston and McDonald? That remains to be seen.
One thing I do know is that teams around the country will have cause for concern when they go head-to-head with the boys in the real blue.
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