When anyone mentions the dismissal of P.J. Hairston, they always phrase it to refer to what UNC is missing on the court.
Obviously, Hairston is a great and talented player. His skills are sorely missed. That is not debatable. However, the larger detail here is that the dismissal itself had a lasting effect on this team. The removal of Hairston from the squad was worse than the original suspension. What it did was remove hope.
It is hard to pin down the exact value of intangibles such as hope and momentum. After all, momentum is only there until it's not. Hope has a similar, unidentifiable aspect to it.
But while Hairston was there, sitting on the Tar Heel bench game after game, the players on the court knew they had a secret weapon waiting in the wings. All they had to do was hold on.
The suspension and questions surrounding a possible reinstatement held that thought and kept it within reach. As long as no decision was made, there was hope of Hairston swooping in to save the day.
Because of this, guys were playing over their heads. Marcus Paige was going wild. He seemed like the most improved player in the nation—someone who could vie for a national player of the year award.
Instead, he was just a player giving all he had in preparation for his superior teammate returning to grab the reins. He was also learning the shooting guard position on the fly, hopefully returning to his natural point guard slot when the missing pieces were reinstated.
Once the decision was made not to apply for Hairston's reinstatement, a number of building blocks crumbled for Paige.
- He would be forced to stay at shooting guard for much of the rest of the season.
- He would be forced to remain the team's go-to scorer and take on all the pressure that goes along with that.
- The team would be entering conference play, when competition naturally kicks up a notch.
- Opponents had a good two months of game tape on his tendencies and strengths.
Because of those factors, Paige's numbers have taken a decided hit since the Hairston decision.
Reports came out December 20 that Hairston would not be returning to the team. Since then, Carolina has played six games. In those games, the team is a pedestrian 3-3, but the Tar Heels are a devastating 0-3 in the ACC. The drop-off for Paige is even starker.
In the first 10 games of the season, when Hairston's future was still up in the air, Paige was playing great. He had produced five 20-point games, scoring at least in double figures every contest.
Paige was also making great decisions and shooting lights-out. He was getting to the free-throw line nearly six times per game and shooting an even 40 percent from three while doubling as the team's only threat from either spot.
Since the university made its official decision to forgo any attempt at reinstating Hairston, Paige's game has gone downhill.
In each of the six games, Paige has failed to reach 20 points. He has also scored fewer than 10 in one-third of those contests. The shooting numbers are the reason why.
Paige started getting to the line much less often while simultaneously shooting much more poorly from the floor: a lethal combination.
Paige's free-throw attempts dipped to fewer than three per game. In conference play, he has gotten to the line a total of five times. His shot from three has also failed him. Paige has gone from shooting 40 percent from deep to a cringe-worthy 27 percent in these last six games.
Fans and coaches can argue it is all just a coincidence, but it seems clear that Paige's game has changed since Hairston moved on.
The rest of the team is also suffering, as evidenced by the team's record and recent play. No one's drop-off is as drastic as Paige's, though. And that makes sense. No one had their role set so definitively.
When the suspension was still running and Hairston's future was a question mark, the team was playing with house money and still had hope. It could play carefree and loose basketball. Whatever games it won without P.J. were just gravy, so why not have fun out there? It worked, obviously.
After December 20, however, borrowed time had run out. The team no longer had that savior waiting in the wings, a player who, by the way, did everything that this team needed well.
Instead, North Carolina began to play tight. It began to feel the pressure. The very first game after the decision came down, it took overtime for UNC to vanquish a Davidson squad that had only won four games prior to their meeting.
Since ACC play started, it has only gotten worse. It is hard to argue that North Carolina wouldn't be better off if the distraction still remained.
If Hairston were still sitting on that bench every game, with no one knowing if he would ever be able to return, the questions would continue. It would be a headache for sure, but then the team would still have hope.